Perfectionists Playpen

Homebuilt judging at EAA AirVenture.


If you’ve been to the Homebuilt Awards ceremony at AirVenture Oshkosh or have had a chance to compare several apparently well-built homebuilts, you might wonder how the judges choose one airplane over another.

Homebuilt aircraft are judged in one of two major categories: kitbuilt or plansbuilt, which includes original designs. At the awards ceremony, the awards are given in order of increasing prestige, with plansbuilt always coming after kitbuilt airplanes. In general, plansbuilt aircraft are older designs, with plans that often predate home computers, let alone CAD/CAM equipment. Somebody once wrote that it took the same amount of tech support for a kit- or a plansbuilt aircraft, but only kits had enough margin to pay for support, helping explain the relative popularity of kits.

Some of the factors that go into homebuilt judging are really obvious, at least, once you hear them:

– The airplane must be aligned properly. All of the flying surfaces should be at the correct angle to each other, most visible when the airplane is viewed from ahead or behind.

– All of the trailing edges should be aligned. On many RVs, for example, the fiberglass wingtip trailing edges don’t align perfectly with the ailerons.

– Kit parts must fit perfectly, regardless. On the Christen Eagles, there was a minor flaw in the engine cowling. The best of the best builders fixed that.

– Parts of the airplane that should be symmetric are. One beautiful plane had a number of colored stripes on each side. It wasn’t till the judges pointed it out that the owner saw that the colors on each side weren’t in the same order.

– The gaps between the engine cowling and the fuselage should be even, all the way around. And gaps between panels on the airplane must be consistent on each panel and from panel to panel.

You get the idea. There’s more to it than the absence of smileys around rivets.

Perfection in reflection. It can be done.

The Best of the Best

So what’s the best-built homebuilt ever? That’s a topic for enough hangar flying to get to Mars and back, twice, and each of us will have our favorites. Someone commented that award winners have an aura to them, and that’s certainly true of these.

Engine compartment of Cory Bird’s Symmetry. Note the polished firewall and matching color of the motor mount and dipstick.

At the top of many people’s list is Cory Bird’s Symmetry [“Perfect Symmetry,” KITPLANES, January 2005], an original design built for speed—241 knots on 200 hp, or economy cruise of 210 knots at 7 gph. Bird worked at Scaled Composites, and his airplane showed mastery of all phases of aircraft construction, from composites to propeller carving to engine overhaul, everything. Aviation journalists around the world depleted their supply of superlatives describing this absolutely flawless airplane. One of Bird’s maxims was that it takes no longer to do it perfectly the first time than it does to rework something that’s almost right.

Suddenly it’s the 1930s again, but without the six-figure price tag.

Another memorable airplane is the Hatz biplane built by Ron Sieck [“Hatz Classic,” KITPLANES, June 2010], not only his first airplane but also his first major project. The craftsmanship was impeccable, but the plane also implemented a theme—it was built to look like a classic Waco biplane, with custom details such as three-panel windshields with one-piece surrounds. The instrument panels, front and back, look like fine woodworking, and the fuselage stringers are mahogany instead of the conventional spruce. He built seven ailerons to get four that were absolutely perfect, with stiffening corrugations and upsweeps at the tips. Over the years, there have been a number of Grand Champion Hatz, showing that excellence in a simple airplane is enough to win.

Absolutely perfect Hatz ailerons with corrugations matching top and bottom. Build seven, keep four.

As you’ve probably figured out, these planes were built without error or defects of any kind (or hardly any). But there’s more—they also projected a theme. Note that these grand champions did not have an expensive airbrushed paint job, nor tons of avionics, nor fancy upholstery. Fancy add-ons do not guarantee an award.

But what about beautiful planes that didn’t even place? Obvious unairworthy details will disqualify a plane from an award, and the judges will do their best to find the builder and tell them what needs to be fixed. Here are two examples:

One beautifully built and beautifully painted red airplane continued the red theme to the engine, where the crankcase halves were held together using nylon lock nuts with red nylon inserts. Beautiful, but those nuts are not high-temperature nuts and not appropriate for the engine compartment, let alone the engine itself. Unairworthy, no award.

There’s nothing over the top about this Hatz, just a beautifully expressed theme.

Another beautifully painted and much publicized composite airplane had signage around the airplane, describing all of the features. That signage also served to camouflage that the fuselage, wings, and tail were not perfectly aligned. The judges were not fooled, and the airplane did not place.

If a bizjet manufacturer built a biplane cockpit, it would look like this.

It is hard to fool the judges. All of the judges have shown exceptional levels of knowledge or workmanship just to qualify, and then each judge gets multi-year on-the-job cross-training so that they can judge metal, composite, and fabric aircraft, not just the technologies they’re most familiar with. Some judges have built award winners themselves, and some have built several.

Aileron and wingtip trailing edge don’t align.

The Judges’ Point of View

What does it mean to look at a plane like a judge? You might not want to do that, because you will immediately pick out all kinds of minor errors and details that have little to do with the airworthiness of the airplane or your enjoyment of it. But a trained eye will spot things like uneven gaps between cowling and fuselage, or trailing edges that don’t quite align, or tie wraps that were not cut flush. Remember that homebuilt judging is to pick the best of the best and is a perfectionist’s playpen. It’s like looking at bald eagles in the wild—very few are as perfect as the ones you see in pictures, and if you only look for perfect details, you’ll miss the majesty and grandeur.

Canopy doesn’t quite fit the fuselage.

The standards for homebuilt judging have been around for over 20 years, and the current version was largely written by the late John Winter, former chief judge. Those standards have been good up to now, but some have noted opportunities for upgrading:

– The FAA has an advisory circular, 90-89B, that discusses how to flight test a homebuilt airplane. The current rules do not require that any flight test program be followed, only that the airplane is out of Phase 1 and that it flew to or at Oshkosh. The best of the best should have complete flight test documentation.

– Builder’s logs and documentation are mentioned in the current standard, but are only judged if available. Documentation, wiring diagrams, and installed equipment lists could help separate the very best from the rest of the best.

– Similarly, “access for maintenance and preflight” is in the current standards, but different judges may weight this differently. One observer noted that second-time builders and those with an A&P background tend to place more emphasis on maintainability.

– Many homebuilts exceed the designer’s recommendations for horsepower or gross weight, without justification. Richard VanGrunsven, the Van in Van’s Aircraft, has spoken out against this practice.

– EAA has Flight Advisor and Tech Counselor programs, but participation in those (or equivalent) are not considered in judging. This sends the message that those safety programs don’t matter in the best of the best.

– Homebuilts must comply with FAR 43, pilots with FAR 61, and the planes flown under FAR 91. There is no requirement for compliance with FAR 23, but there are parts of FAR 23 that really make sense, like standardized order, shape, and color of engine controls. Violating the rules of human factors doesn’t guarantee an accident, just like violating edge distance in sheet metal doesn’t guarantee a failure, but the best of the best should comply with the best standards.

Vertical and horizontal cowling gaps are different.

On a more everyday level, there are other criteria that could go into “best” homebuilt, using a different definition of “best.” Such criteria could include:

– Improved handling qualities, ride in turbulence, comfort, crashworthiness, cruise speed, payload, range and overall utility.

– Decreased weight, drag, stall speed, takeoff and landing roll, build time and cost.

Buying an Award Winner

If you see an award winner for sale, would you want to pay extra for it? Maybe…

One award winner flew for a number of years before developing problems with its constant-speed propeller. When the prop was removed, it was discovered that the plastic shipping cover on the hub had not been removed before installation, and the prop was getting oil only through a crack in the plastic. Eventually the prop filled with sludge and that’s when the problem was found.

A beautiful Glasair III had its instrument panel installed before the wing was mounted to the bottom of the fuselage. Instead of installing the steam gauges (this was a while ago) with instrument nuts, conventional nuts and bolts were used with the builder standing in the fuselage through the wing opening, making it difficult to work on the panel without removing the wing.

Empennage fairing doesn’t fit flush.

In the Homebuilder’s Hangar at Oshkosh are pictures of past award winners, including some from 30 and 40 years ago. I had never seen nor heard of many of these planes after they won the awards. It was sobering that the first two I looked up had fatal accidents within their first year.

So, what does all this mean to you? In the homebuilt world, superb craftsmanship implies, but does not guarantee, that everything is as it should be. If you’re buying a homebuilt, don’t obsess on an award winner. Find a homebuilt that meets your needs, flying and maintenance skills, insurance requirements, and budget. Don’t assume that a pretty airplane is well built just because. And if you’re building, by all means do the best job that you can. But with airplanes, like other projects, craftsmanship alone may not suffice.


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