“I’ve learned more about people through my association with aviation than I ever did about airplanes.”
-Paul Poberezny, Founder,
Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA)
I’ve experienced Experimental aviation from many perspectives. Some are common: enthusiast, dreamer, aircraft builder. Others are less common: scratch building to completion, accomplishing the first flight, logging 500 hours in a homebuilt. However, becoming involved with an upstart kit aircraft company is an experience few are afforded, and one I’ve been lucky to enjoy.
My opportunity dawned in 1997 when John Monnett disclosed to me a secret design called “Sonex.” (Before I lose enthusiasts of Van’s, RANS, Zenith, Flitzer, Pietenpol, etc., let me assure you this article isn’t just for Sonex builders. There’s something here for everyone!) I was enamored by the design and watched the prototypes evolve. In 1998, I carted an incomplete set of plans home, ordered 13 sheets of aluminum, and began building my own.
Starting with an incomplete set of plans and 13 sheets of aluminum, Kerry Fores’ Sonex was plansbuilt champion at AirVenture in 2006.
As I built my Sonex, I also volunteered at Sonex Aircraft builder workshops. I staffed the Sonex booth during AirVenture. I exchanged creation of the flight manual and builder support documents for 10,000 rivets. In 2003, as the result of my carefully orchestrated begging, the Monnett’s hired me as Sonex Aircraft’s first non-family employee. My first task was to insulate a new hangar and screw ribbed metal to the walls and ceiling. I was thrilled to be part of the glamorous world of kit aircraft manufacturing. In the years that have followed, my position has grown and evolved with the company, and for the last decade my primary role has been technical support manager.
I shared the above to lay the foundation for what I share below, and it applies to all homebuilt aircraft because it applies to people, not aircraft. Having experienced both the hobby and the industry of homebuilding, and having supported over 3000 builders, I’ve learned the two most important ingredients for homebuilding success: desire and passion. I’ve also learned a key way to fail: misplacing your confidence.
Fitting a canopy is a stumbling point for many builders who read the internet and fall victim to the belief that breaking one is inevitable. This misplaced belief has stalled the progress of many projects.
Steel Your Confidence
To become familiar with the tools, techniques, materials, and plans-reading skills necessary to build an aluminum airplane, Sonex workshop participants spend a portion of their time building a wing leading edge project. Before they begin work, I caution them not to copy their neighbor. Sonex attracts first-time builders who may need their confidence bolstered, and some may cast an eye toward their neighbor’s project. An inexperienced builder who is carefully absorbing the plans may feel pressure if their neighbor is confidently cutting and bending aluminum. They may assume their neighbor knows what they are doing, abandon their careful approach, and follow their neighbor’s lead. It’s human nature.
However, some builders who appear confident, charging forward with their project, don’t always know what they’re doing. It wasn’t uncommon to see several projects bear the same mistake. It may have been an assumed dimension, errant advice regarding a tool or technique, or a significant deviation from the plans. Such errors could spread through the room like the flu through kindergarten. Even experienced builders encountering new (to them) materials and tasks, such as drilling titanium, finishing fiberglass, or fitting a canopy, can feel their confidence wane. It is normal, and it is easily conquered by desire.
Standard category aircraft must be maintained in accordance with their type certificate. Experimental category aircraft carry no such requirement, and a detailed repair manual almost never exists. This can leave an otherwise capable A&P scratching their head over a repair while a builder familiar with the design doesn’t even pause before beginning the work.
If someone remains silent—maybe from fear of asking what they think is a stupid question—and copies another builder’s methods or actions, they are at risk of making a significant error. I saw this happen when a builder shared his “simplified” way to rig Sonex wings with the builder community. It was easier, but it was wrong. The builders that followed his advice never questioned his approach, which differed significantly from the factory-defined method. I had to tell several builders that their wing spars needed rework. Those builders misplaced their confidence by believing the correct method was difficult.
Unlike copying, where someone remains silent and mimics the actions of another, conversation brings ideas together for discussion. Some may embrace another’s suggestion; others may decide it isn’t the path for them. Through conversation, the merits are presented and distilled. This applies to tool selection, building techniques, interpretation of instructions, etc. While one builder’s website may detail the use of a CNC machine to make parts, conversation among other builders will reveal that it isn’t required. The person who used the CNC machine may be a machinist with access to that equipment. Most of us are not machinists, nor do we need to be. While some builders have used CNC machines, I proved an aluminum airplane could be scratch built without having a band saw or drill press within 400 feet of my garage. Don’t let one builder’s knowledge, tools, or perceived skill level steal your confidence. You must steel your confidence.
If you seek “how to” advice, you will get countless answers and, in the end, will still need to make your own decision. A Sonex wing can be built vertically or horizontally, and the method you choose should be the one you feel will work best for you. It is the end result that matters, and no one knows better than you how you will achieve the best results.
The All-Assuming Internet
“To fly, the Wright brothers had to conquer the forces of lift, drag, thrust, and gravity. A fifth and far greater deterrent to flight had not yet been invented: the internet talk group.”
The internet is a great place to lose your confidence or become paralyzed by fear. A new or perspective builder may spend hours absorbing advice dispensed in talk groups and on builders’ websites. Not all contributors have the knowledge to back their advice, and someone new to a design doesn’t have the knowledge to filter good advice from bad. It’s like panning for gold without knowing what gold looks like. My technical support role has provided me a unique window to builders; I see advice being disseminated on the internet, by whom, and I have the factory-to-customer technical support history of the people dispensing advice. Some builders type knowledgeably from their position of inexperience.
Before the internet resided in the palm of everyone’s hand, homebuilders supported each other with newsletters. People with a solid knowledge of the particular aircraft edited the newsletter, and erroneous information never made the cut. The internet has no editor. It gives everyone a voice, even if they lack skill, aptitude, or ability. Someone who freelanced their way through an assembly may make it their mission to warn all builders of the “error” in the plans.
The kit designer should always be your first stop for technical support. No one knows the product better and has more interest in your success.
I’m sometimes asked, “What do people have problems with?” My response is, “Everything.” But not everyone has a problem with everything. Many builders have no problems at all. Other builders populate my inbox on a daily basis. A perspective builder who believes they are performing due diligence by absorbing years of talk group archives could come to believe their chosen airplane is unbuildable, but that wouldn’t explain the hundreds or thousands that have been successfully built. When you browse the archives of a talk group and sift through websites, you must question whether advice dispensed in 2001 is still applicable. Has the kit manufacturer updated their plans? Improved a part? Changed a material? Maybe the problem was of the builder’s own doing. Was the issue resolved when the builder contacted the factory and they never updated their blog? Be wary of advice that mandates significant modifications are needed to parts or procedures.
After a builder chided me that “everyone” has the same problem they did, I searched the internet with the random phrase, “1996 Jeep door wiring.” The result was startling. My Jeep should be suffering from chronic wiring problems at the door hinge, but—and this is important—it isn’t. Never even a hiccup. I could have shared my positive experience with the Jeep group, but most people don’t do that, do they? The people with problems post, often several times, skewing the results. No one shares when things go well. “My backup lights worked today. That’s 21 years in a row.”
Chances are, people recommending the best prop for your homebuilt have less experience than the factory that developed the airframe/powerplant combination. If you install an engine in your aircraft that the kit designer never intended, even the designer may decline to provide a specific recommendation.
Neighbors with Initials
“The EAA tech counselor, the FAA inspector, and two A&Ps say I’ve got everything right. Here’s what I want you to do: Talk to the experts I’ve assembled for you.”
I received the above email from a builder with whom we had reached an impasse. His “experts” were backing—or feeding—his issue, and we could not get him to listen to our advice. Unknowingly, he identified other thieves of confidence: hangar mates, EAA Chapter members, the FAA, and airframe and powerplant mechanics. Did you just gasp? I’ll explain. Inexperienced builders are at risk of being led astray by their naivety and are susceptible to believe the “experts” know more than they do. They don’t—at least not by default, title, or club affiliation. Your hangar mate may be a whiz with Poly-Fiber and clueless with fiberglass. Airframe and powerplant mechanics carry the burden of FAA governance and the requirement to maintain and repair standard category (think Cessna and Piper) aircraft accordingly. Nothing is open for debate.
I received an email from a builder regarding the installation of a remote oil filter on an AeroVee engine, (the AeroVee is an aircraft conversion of the classic Type I “Bug” engine) asking, “Where are the routing instructions and parts list? An A&P helping with the construction of [my kit] refuses to touch the installation without documentation.” The instructions exist, but there is no requirement to follow them. An Experimental aircraft engine does not need to meet the requirements of a certified aircraft engine. When people sporting initials (A&P, AI, DAR, FAA) make such demands, we mortals question if we have any business building an airplane. I assure you, we do. Your DAR or FAA inspector can be thoroughly familiar with Continental engines, however, your Jabiru 3300 may be the first one they have seen. Further, when a certified aircraft engine is installed on an Experimental airplane, it becomes “Experimental” and no longer needs to be installed, maintained, or operated as a certified engine.
This is not an attack on any group’s knowledge or experience; it is a caution that their knowledge and experience may not translate to your project. Nor does it need to. Although Experimental aircraft do not have to adhere to the strict requirements defined by the FAA for standard category aircraft, that does not make Experimental aircraft less safe; it makes them available and potentially innovative. Some Sonex builders ask if they can replace the airframe’s stainless steel blind rivets with solid rivets or, as they often say, “real” aircraft rivets. When told the blind rivets are twice the strength of the “real” aircraft rivets, most of them change their mind. Conversely, builders of other aircraft designs should not substitute solid rivets with blind rivets. Rely on the designer’s choice of hardware, not the casual suggestion of someone who does not know the engineering behind the design. While I am confident supporting Sonex Aircraft products, I would never offer advice on timing the mags of a Lycoming engine or rigging a Van’s RV-6. Fair is fair.
Reference photos gathered on flight lines and during factory visits can inadvertently lead builders astray. Here Sonex serial number 1, photographed in May 2017, still wears a cowl configuration from 1998. The cutouts in this cowling never matched what the plans depicted, causing some builders to question the accuracy of their plans or argue they were sent the wrong cowling.
Build It as It was Designed
“With a few modifications, you can build a nice Pietenpol. With no modifications, you can build a great one.”
That quote applies to any successful design. I include “successful” because the history of homebuilding is strewn with poor designs and builder communities left caring for orphans. If you’ve chosen a successful design from a reputable company, you will do well to build it the way it was designed. That doesn’t mean you can’t add your own personal touches—that is part of the joy and spirit of homebuilding—but installing an engine that exceeds the design’s limits is not the way to express yourself. The longer you lurk in an internet talk group, the more recommended changes you will be exposed to. Even the smallest change can ripple through a project, leaving you facing unforeseen complications and a significant increase in build time. Here is some good advice borrowed from a friend (thanks, Tony) who is building his fifth homebuilt: “Build it the way it was designed and after you’ve been flying it for a while, you will know what, if any, changes you want to make.”
On a similar note, I’ve found it’s fashionable for some to hold forth that “the factory” doesn’t know what they are doing. Having built and flown the products I support, it’s always fun reading that it can’t be done. No well-intentioned kit aircraft manufacturer benefits from misleading their customers or shipping an inferior product. A company’s success depends on their customers’ success. Deceit may sell 20 airframes, but the truth will sell 500. Successful customers will sell another 500. When you see such claims, question the source and their motivation.
Ironically, the factory can inadvertently lead builders astray. The Sonex Aircraft factory fleet has been scrutinized at nearly 70 builder workshops. Workshop attendees brought their very pointed questions (“Can I sleep in the back of the fuselage?”) and their digital cameras. They combed over every detail, took close-up photos, and tapped oil-stained fingers on a control surface while contemplating its construction. They’d tug me over and ask why we have a clevis pin where their plans show a bolt. I’d explain that the airframes are prototypes and none had been built from the plans. The factory airplanes were built from engineering studies, napkin sketches, and trial and error. It was while building the prototypes that the specific details would develop and be incorporated in the plans. Be careful, please, comparing the photos you’ve harvested at factories and fly-ins to your plans and kit parts.
Have Your Own Experience
If I told you I had a flat tire driving through Denver, would you avoid Denver in fear of a flat tire? No, of course not. Hundreds of things could go wrong driving through Denver, yet the vast majority of people get through without incident. Don’t anticipate problems. Countless builders have emailed me after completing a task they had feared for weeks (or years) to tell me how well it went. Their fear was conceived and nurtured by other builders.
If the desire to build an airplane is burning within you, and you’ve identified the design that fits your mission, you have what you need to be successful. Don’t misplace your confidence. If you are in the midst of a project and feel overwhelmed by decisions and advice, turn off the computer, put aside the smartphone, and lock the shop door. Have your own experience.