Assumptions are best avoided in aviation, but it’s a safe bet most of us reading KITPLANES own or are building some form of aviating device licensed in the Experimental category.
It’s also not pulling too hard on your headset cords to say most of us learned to fly in a certified airplane, if only because that’s the only practical option for a commercial flight school. Yes, some of us first flapped our wings via the military or down on the farm, but that’s a minority club these days. After all, breaking the surly bonds through rows of corn is endearingly romantic, but most of our parents toiled in cubicles, and the kitchen garden, if there was one, was too urban and far too compact for aviation, so we didn’t have a farm to play with.
As for how many of us also own or rent certified airplanes in addition to our Experimentals is a more open question. At any rate I must confess, I’ve recently become one of those.
In fact, my entire “career” in aviation is hopelessly prosaic. Training was in Cessna 150s, what modest flying I could swing in the first 20 years was in rented 172s, and only in the last 20 years did I step up to my Starduster Too.
That said, my mindset has always been on Experimentals. My training and early employment as a mechanic’s helper was surrounded by Experimentals. The flight school offered the usual Cessnas, but the boss was building an S1 Pitts, and his son made a living building, servicing, modifying, and racing rag-and-tube Experimentals. I flew the Cessnas because that’s what I could get my hands on, but clearly all the interesting stuff had Experimental literally written on it somewhere.
In fact, I told myself I would never own a certified airplane because you could always rent one of those, and renting is far less expensive than owning when it comes to flying—just as it is in boating and other hobbies.
So I ended up owning the Starduster and it’s been great. Wichita Wonders were in my past, other than when my Experimental froze a muffler bearing hundreds of miles from home, and a certified brought the mechanic and replacement muff bearing. But if a certified airplane made a low pass through my life, it was just a momentary thing. I’ve had my hands full getting the old biplane daily-driver functional, and I must admit noodling over how to improve my plane has become a native act. There’s an internet full of old NACA studies to ponder, armchair aerodynamics to learn, thermodynamics to question; in short, owning an Experimental is a license to indulge in armchair engineering. If goofing off in applied physics holds any appeal, or simply bringing your air buggy into the late 20th century engineering-wise seems like a good idea, Experimental is the only game in town.
So why did I just buy into a certified? Happenstance, mainly. One of my hangar mates owned a Cessna 140A, and you got to admit, they’re kind of cute. When my son decided to learn to fly, and the 140A owner had unfortunately but naturally timed out of aviation, that simple little taildragger began to make sense. And then an old friend, what AOPA would call a “rusty pilot,” walked through my hangar door saying he wanted to fly again and, “Hey, what’s the story on this little guy?”
And so a partnership was formed and I became half owner of a 140A.
To date this return-to-certified adventure has been confined to gently waking the nicely maintained but not-flown-recently Cessna from an eight-year nap. And I must say, while the experience has been good, and thanks to a partner and the aircraft’s humble capability, it has proven fiscally possible so far—but ultimately it has renewed my faith in Experimentals. Not that there’s anything bad wrong with the 140A, as they say down south. I’ve reveled in just how simple and easy it is to work on. After decades of decoding the Mayan hieroglyphics that are my Starduster’s systems—just what was the builder thinking?—it’s wonderful to gaze at factory parts manuals. It’s satisfying to see the plane was likely built in a jig rather than welded up on someone’s garage floor, and generally it seems new parts were used throughout, rather than whatever was on sale at the flymart that year.
Of course, that was 67 years ago at this point for the 140A, so there is room for improvement. The original exhaust system, for example, was seemingly developed by having two cylinders bark into a waffle mold. The whole is partially held together with rivets and is prone to cracking—imagine that—with a 25-hour repetitive AD in play. The only answer? Fitting a Cessna 150 exhaust via an STC. Thank goodness for that, but really, that design is 58 years old, and I think we’ve learned a bit since then. Instinctually I imagine how the long-tube exhaust would flow down to the rear cowling exit, then stop. There will be no modifications here.
And that unused antenna housing—let’s amputate that blob from atop the vertical tail. Oops, better not do that. Nor should I step up the compression ratio a couple of points for a useful bump in fuel economy.
Arrgh! You can’t do anything meaningful to a certified, and the parts—such as the tiny $136 rudder return spring—cost more than life itself. Like acknowledging the poor and hungry during after-dinner talk, I’ve casually considered the poor souls facing down ADS-B in a certified plane. Now I am one, and by my own hand.
And so, while not in total denial of my appreciation for store-bought hardware, I’ve renewed my vows to Experimental aviation. We owe major thanks to those who came before and lit the legislative airways for Experimental/Amateur-Built. We should not tire in keeping that path well lit.
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.