Homebuilding in South Africa

How it’s done, springbok style.



North Americans might think they’ve cornered the market on kit-aircraft manufacturing, but we know from polling subscribers and from the numerous aircraft kit manufacturers and designers we routinely contact that the demand for self-built aircraft is truly worldwide. Don’t believe it? Attend EAA’s AirVenture and listen closely to the veritable babel of languages spoken throughout the crowds.

One of the largest groups of pilgrims to AirVenture each year is a scrappy bunch of 250 to 300 South Africans. They’ve attended so often that they’ve now taken over a designated section of the campground, complete with a banner, assorted “stage” shows of their own and, of course, braais (South African barbecue). It is a significant presence that’s been duly noted.

But do they build and fly? Well, I had the good fortune to travel halfway across the world to find out. My travels took me from Johannesburg, South Africa, and its gold, diamond and platinum mines, to Cape Town, near the Cape of Good Hope (southernmost point of the continent), and east to Port Elizabeth, with miles of beaches and undulating sand dunes. Along the way, I met plans builders, kit builders and two industrious entrepreneurs who have studied the system, obtained AP (Approved Person) status with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and gone into the business of non-type-certificated aircraft assembly—with the blessing of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

Dutch-born full-time airport resident Rob Kakebeeke stands next to his handbuilt Cubby.

The Tour Gets Started

First stop on this aviation safari was a small airfield called Worcester, about 60 miles northwest of Cape Town, in the Breede River Valley. The area is known for its terrific wave soaring, ridge running and, yes, even thermals. The airport houses both a for-profit flying school and the nonprofit Cape Gliding Club.

It was springtime, and the wind was howling, which prevented my husband and I from brushing up our soaring skills but left plenty of time for us to chew the fat with soaring club members and explore the maze of hangars on the rural airfield. Inside those hangars were some true gems, including antique classics in the midst of reconstruction and even a delightful Cubby, hand-built by stoic, Dutch-born full-time airport resident and pilot Rob Kakebeeke.

Kakebeeke’s Cubby is hangared against the relentless spring winds in the Breede River Valley.

Even though we were skunked that weekend, at least one brave sailplane pilot and crew got off an 8-hour, nearly 350-mile flight, proof that the lift was there for those who could handle the gusty winds.

Kakebeeke’s Cubby is ready to go when the wind lets up.

Kakebeeke’s instrument panel contains all he’ll ever need.

Moving on to Coss Aviation

Being tourists, we moved on as Monday rolled around, heading back to Cape Town to check out Robin Coss Aviation and Flight Training, a full-service maintenance and aircraft-building facility, designated under South African CAA’s AMO 1147. Yes, the South African CAA sanctions professional kit-building facilities, in the name of improving safety and build quality of Experimental aircraft operations.

Robin Coss, principal of Robin Coss Aviation, in the reception area of his small aircraft factory, located in an industrial area adjacent to Cape Town International Airport.

What does that mean? Well, one look inside Coss’s new facility alongside the Cape Town Airport said it all: Bay after bay was filled with Van’s Aircraft RV-7s and -10s under construction for soon-to-be happy owners. President and CEO Coss and his partners have organized the construction process assembly-line style. No conveyor belts or moving tracks, but you can definitely see that each station is set up for a distinctive purpose: Tail feathers and fuselages are constructed in one area, while wings, control surfaces, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers are formed up in another. An entire area is set aside for engine assembly; Coss says he likes to put them together in South Africa from parts shipped in by Lycoming, thus better controlling the accessories and providing each customer with a consistent product.

Tracing the path of aircraft assembly through the Coss plant. Just follow the green line!

A state-of-the-art paint booth occupies a nice chunk of real estate just before the final assembly bays. Coss prefers to paint his airframes before assembly to ensure better coverage of the base paint, cutting down on corrosion issues later on.

Coss has its own spray booth for painting aircraft onsite.

In the final assembly areas, workers can be seen putting the finishing touches to the fiberglass parts that are so prevalent in the RV-10. Lots of hands make for short work of complex tasks such as the final fitting of the canopy, wheelpants, fairings and cowling. And a few little modifications have made the forming and fitting of the two-piece fiberglass gull-wing doors on the airplane much simpler, Coss said.

An assembly bay at the Coss factory. Coss builds Van’s aircraft and completes certification for customers in South Africa.

RV-10s weren’t the only aircraft we saw under construction as we wandered through the factory. Up in the loft, parts—lots of them—are organized by customer number. “We never, ever mix up accessories and parts between the kits,” Coss said, noting how each kit is segregated, waiting for its turn to come together for an owner. Coss Aviation sells the kits before they are ordered from the U.S. A relatively short shipping time from the West Coast of the U.S. (approximately two months by boat) makes that possible. Prices include the entire cost of the kit, engine, avionics, construction and installation, plus flight testing, so that clients are delivered an aircraft that has been registered in their name and is ready to fly.

An RV-10 built by Robin Coss.

Aircraft built and painted by Robin Coss Aviation.

Licensed to Fly

But only qualified customers can do that. In South Africa, the CAA has broken with imitating the FAA and ICAO rules and insists that even single-engine pilots must have documented transition training and a type rating for each high-performance aircraft they fly. Yes, you must be trained and signed off, and take a checkride, before you can carry passengers. And, yes, that’s going to cost money. But when has good training ever been money wasted?

Again breaking with FAA rules, the South African CAA has seen fit to allow numerous non-type-certificated aircraft to be flown in limited commercial uses, which include pipeline operations, agricultural operations and, wisely, given the expanded need for type ratings, flight training.

The Cape of Good Hope, considered the southernmost point in Africa.

Safety Concerns

How has that affected safety? “There are more than 140 RV aircraft flying in South Africa, and we’ve only had one that I know of damaged so badly in an accident that it was a total loss,” Coss said. “Because of the CAA Part 96 allowing for limited commercial use of these non-type-certificated aircraft, they can be used in flight training. We’ve got one RV-7 that’s now logged more than 2000 flight hours on dry-lease to a flight school.” The South Africans may have figured out how to make Experimental aircraft flying safer.

Flight Testing

The Part 61 flight training and Part 96 provisions compose just a portion of the safety enhancements the SACAA has seen fit to enact. The other key component to keeping Experimental aviation safe is the requirement for a designated Type 2 test pilot to perform, at a minimum, the very first flight of every new aircraft and the last flight of the 25- or 40-hour flight-test regime (the hour requirement is at the discretion of the CAA). Coss’s aircraft use the certified engine/prop combination to garner the 25-hour flight-test regimes, generally within a 50-n.m. (100-kilometer) circle from the primary airport.

Franschoek, a bucolic wine-country town, is one valley over from the Breede River.

“We do our first flights right here at KCPT, dovetailing right in with the big Boeings,” Coss said, smiling. Proving flights, as they are called, include a climb performance test, Vne test, a recording of established flight parameters, and checking each and every installed avionics system, from EFIS to autopilot. “We develop a unique pilot operations manual for each aircraft, which is then approved by the CAA,” Coss said. “We do work from templates, VFR and IFR, to keep things standardized.”

He likes standardization, offering just a few options for either a VFR-flying or IFR-flying machine. “If the pilot calls me from the bush in Botswana with an issue, a standard engine or avionics installation means I can help him out without having to pull up his particular set of blueprints,” Coss added. All of the airplanes with Dynon SkyViews or Garmin avionics are wired the same. All of the IFR airplanes with Lycoming engines are equipped with dual magnetos, he said. “We’re in Africa. Parts aren’t manufactured here. You need to equip yourself with what you know you can get fixed.”

One exception to the keep-it-simple rule, perhaps, is the MGL Avionics EFIS. Coss has built aircraft equipped with these South African-made avionics when asked to do so, but then the owners of those aircraft have support nearby with any hardware or software issues that might arise.

Another Factory Visit: The Bailes’s Facility

Weather prevented us from sampling Coss’s workmanship during our initial visit, and, having limited time in the country, we thanked him for the factory tour and began a 500-n.m. (1000-kilometer) trek eastbound toward our next scheduled stop in Port Elizabeth.

Tony Bailes holds one of his custom-molded plastic sidewall parts for the RV-10 in place.

The coastline between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth was as scenic as any I’ve encountered and well worth the slow touring we did to experience the broad wheat fields paving deep valleys, quaint small towns, secluded harbors and spacious bays along the route. Three easy days of driving put us in Port Elizabeth, with its busy harbor and cacophonous wharfs, loaded with goods coming and going. Durban may be bigger, but Port Elizabeth is catching up quickly.

A couple of turns off the waterfront, in a downtown warehouse district a few miles from any airport (and up a set of steep stairs) is Anthony and Sigi Bailes’s Aircraft Assembly & Upholstery Centre. This small operation uses a more traditional “build-it-up-on-the-spot” method of assembly but achieves high-quality results for its clients.

The MGL system, hard at work in Bailes’s RV-10. MGL Avionics is another South African company.

Bailes, a South African Airlines pilot who became a “serial” builder after completing his own RV-7 years ago (he has since completed an RV-10), has several employees and the occasional builder/owner assisting him to build RV-6, -7 and -10 aircraft, typically three at a time, in the small facility. In a room off the factory floor, Clinton Brass deftly handles supple leather hides, turning them into custom-fit and embroidered upholstery for both kit customers and retrofit customers (of which the company has several).

Bailes’s RV-7.

Aircraft Assembly & Upholstery shops out the custom paint jobs around the corner in the district, using a system of pulleys and ropes to carefully lower an assembled aircraft (without wings or horizontal stabilizer) to the open garage bay on the lower floor of the factory, where it is then trailered for painting, and, from there, to the airport several kilometers away for final assembly and flight testing.

Bailes’s philosophy is to give customers a “custom-built” experience, and he offers myriad consultations with the client before a final package of avionics, engine, prop, interior and paint is developed for each. His wife, Sigi, handles the paperwork and customer contact from then on, ensuring a smooth transition from constructed kit to registered aircraft.

Partner Sigi Bailes offers her opinion on this Lycoming.

Bailes has designed a few neat mods for his -10 projects, from carbon-fiber plenums and instrument panels to hidden storage compartments and pre-formed plastic side panels that pop right into place with a screw or two. Covering the side panels is as simple as gluing your fabric or hide of choice onto them.

With assembly so close to the wharf where large freight vessels unload, Bailes is able to secure over-water shipping rates that compare favorably to overland shipping rates in the U.S. In fact, a flat-packed traditional RV kit costs less to ship via water to South Africa than it does to ship via Yellow freight across the U.S.!

An RV-10 being assembled at Tony and Sigi Bailes’s aircraft assembly plant in Port Elizabeth.

At the airport, Bailes’s assembly hangars hold more than just Van’s airplanes. One technician was leaning over a classic Lancair 320, in for an instrument-panel refurbishment.

Pre-painted parts wait at Bailes’s airport hangar for the RV-10 fuselage to be transported to the airport for final assembly. Within a month of when this photo was taken, the airplane was flying on schedule.

Sampling the Product

The wind finally dropped below 30 knots steady at Port Elizabeth, allowing us to fly some of Bailes’s completed projects, and as you might imagine, they handled as nicely as they looked like they would. Fit, comfort and finish are on par with that of his much larger competitor in Cape Town. Clearly Bailes and his shop have figured out how to put together RV aircraft. Our flight took us over the sand dunes along a pristine coastline, then inland, following a winding river past Addo Elephant Park (yes, you could see elephants grazing below), and finally landing at a secluded farm strip in the midst of avocado and citrus orchards—all of this in only a 20-minute flight.

Stellenbosch Airport, an aerial view.

The next day, after a few suggestions from the Baileses, we began our trek in reverse, but along a very different route. South Africa’s Route 62 is its Route 66, the old road from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. Though the distance across the Little Karoo semi-arid area of the country is shorter, the narrow, twisting two-lane road encourages drivers to take the turns slowly and savor the view of scrappy brush-covered hills, valleys lush with vineyards and tiny working-class towns, still steeped in tradition. It was worth going slowly.

Eventually the route led us right back to where we started, in Worcester, and the ever-present wind subsided just enough for us to enjoy a day of wave soaring. I even got to try out a couple of winch launches.

The day before we were to board our flight to begin the journey home, Coss called and asked if we’d like to fly in an RV-10 he’d built. But of course! We were told to meet the owner, Marc Van Steenberghe, at Stellenbosch Aerodrome. Super. Except the road map we had showed no airport in Stellenbosch. The trusty Garmin Nuvi we’d used for two weeks to get around the country had no idea what we were asking for either. A quick search on the Internet provided a lat/long and a four-letter designator, FASH, and I plugged it into Google Maps on satellite mode.

Hmm…nothing. I panned around. Sure enough, the lat/long was somewhat less than perfectly accurate (or Google Maps was). I eventually found it though, tucked into a field of grapes, along a country road lined with huge eucalyptus trees. Not a big place, but I was pretty sure we could figure out how to drive there. We hopped in the car and headed out.

Amazingly, we missed the turnoff only once (no signage). The state of general aviation in South Africa is a lot like it is in other countries in Africa. Most small airports are run more like private clubs—with lounges and restaurants, and sometimes even swimming pools and playgrounds for family members to relax in while waiting for the pilots to finish flying for the day—very comfortable. Stellenbosch definitely fit this mold.

Van Steenberghe kept his six-month-old RV-10 in a shared hangar with his RV-7 and a plansbuilt Long-EZ (along with a couple of classic motorbikes). The shadows were growing long as we pulled out the airplane and watched his preflight. Coss’s signature quality was evident in the aircraft and its finish. Two MGL 10.4-inch Odyssey EFIS screens dominated the instrument panel, with little else to distract the pilot. It was but a short taxi to the end of the runway, where, after a clean runup, we departed into the buttery afternoon light.

The next hour we traversed an area of coastline that we’d driven only a week before, broad wheat- and citrus-filled valleys and all. We were hammered by ragged rotors defining the edge of a mountain wave as we swung around the Cape of Good Hope and were treated to whales breaching just under us in the quiet, broad waters of Hermanus Bay. We landed just as the sun set over the mountains that frame Stellenbosch’s verdant valley, and we celebrated the excellent flight with wine fermented from grapes grown not far away.

OK, that was the flight. How did the airplane fly? Like an RV—honest and crisp. Never once did I doubt the aircraft’s integrity and control authority, even in a couple of sets of rotor turbulence that would have sent my head smacking against the ceiling if I had not anticipated them and pulled my seatbelt extra tight. (The nice thing about a mountain wave is that it typically advertises its presence with distinctive clouds.)

The sand dunes outside of Port Elizabeth, as seen from Bailes’s RV-7.

Ease of Flying

Best of all, there was little, if any, hassle to flying in and around the Cape Town terminal operations area (equivalent to Class B airspace in the U.S.). Controllers were accommodating of our sightseeing flight, and we were allowed easy access to all the areas we wanted to view, from Robbin Island to Hermanus Bay and back. The lingua franca was English, and I had no trouble imagining myself being able to transition to a South African pilot’s license with ease. Even the charts made sense.

So, what’s my assessment of South Africa’s homebuilding industry? Healthy and safe, from what I could tell. From the one-off plans builders and antique classics rebuilders in working-class boroughs to the cottage industry kit builders, the South African CAA seems to have created a set of workable rules that is resulting in a growth industry. Other countries could learn a thing or two, if you ask me.

Amy Laboda has taught students how to fly in California, Texas, New York and Florida. She’s towed gliders, flown ultralights, wrestled with aerobatics and even dabbled in skydiving. She holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating, multi-engine and single-engine flight instructor ratings, as well as glider and rotorcraft (gyroplane) ratings. She’s helped with the build up of her Kitfox IV and RV-10.



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