A fellow builder recently commented that in the process of building a kit aircraft, some people discover that while the original dream was the one we all begin with—soaring free on wings of our own—what they discover along the way is that they enjoy the building aspect even more than the flying. For some this means that they will become “repeat offenders”—the guys with two or three or even a dozen planes under their belts. For others, homebuilding is the gateway to becoming an A&P or DAR. For young builders, like the ones participating in the Young Eagles Program, the experience might launch them into an engineering career. So if you really enjoy building airplanes, is there a way to make it pay?
Go Big: Scaled Composites
If ever a company embodied the spirit of homebuilding, it’s Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, founded by the legendary Burt Rutan. Of course, the engineering and tooling is in a different league than someone fiddling on a Long-EZ or Zenith in their garage, but the corporate ethos is surprisingly similar: Scaled engineers take responsibility for entire projects, not just, say, the hinge pin of a gear-retraction door, which might be the case in a larger aerospace company.
Elliot Seguin, project engineer in charge of propulsion on the Scaled T-X, with the first version of the Wasabi Formula 1 racer inside Scaled’s Hangar 78 (the main assembly hangar). Although Scaled does not have an official “20 Percent Time” (Google’s famous policy allowing workers to spend one day a week tinkering on personal projects), they are allowed to use the shop after hours for personal projects.
This can-do approach has put Scaled at the forefront of aviation development with projects like SpaceShipOne and -Two, and Stratolaunch. Aerospace design has become notoriously conservative, both from the aspect of no risk to life and no risk to bottom line. But as Zach Reeder, project engineer for the Stratolaunch wing center section says: “Taking responsibility and making mistakes is crucial to gaining the experience needed to oversee entire projects.”
To that end, pursuing one’s own homebuilding project (approximately 50% of Scaled engineers are building or have built their own plane) is considered crucial for getting the best jobs at Scaled. Reeder himself was given Rutan’s old Catbird on the condition that he restore and fly it to Oshkosh within two years. Reeder made it to Wisconsin, and later set the C-1c 5000km speed record in Catbird.
According to Elliot Seguin, project engineer in charge of propulsion on the T-X trainer (whose self-designed and -built Formula One racer Wasabi graced the cover of our January issue), there are traditionally two ways into Scaled: as an engineer or a fabricator. That said, the boundaries between the two are fuzzy: Engineers typically spend at least half their time on the shop floor working with fabricators to design and build parts. And fabricators such as Cory Bird (builder of the famous Symmetry, and now vice president at Scaled) often work their way up into management positions. “It’s a very academic situation, in that we are all constantly learning new things,” says Seguin. So regardless of whether one enters as an engineer or fabricator, those in upper management have extensive knowledge of all aircraft systems. Again, this is in contrast to what you’d find at a typical aerospace company: As a friend who is a project manager at a major gas turbine company commented (on condition of anonymity): “I have engineers designing turbine blades on their computers who I am pretty sure if I handed them a real turbine blade, wouldn’t know what they were holding.”
Justin Gillen, lead engineer for the Scaled Stratolaunch’s maingear, built this Tango 2 seen sitting in front of WhiteKnightTwo at a Scaled Composites’ family day. Scaled encourages its engineers and fabricators to pursue personal projects like this to develop their skill set.
The group of young engineers I spoke with noted that the workload and schedule at Scaled can vary tremendously depending on where a project is in its schedule. There are lots of late nights to meet deadlines and early-morning test flights (Mojave gets windy in the afternoon). These engineers are passionate, extremely hard-working, and their ambitions carry over into their personal projects: Both Reeder and Seguin have set FAI world records with their planes, and Justin Gillen did extensive mods to his Tango 2 (pictured above) to provide in-flight support to Seguin on his Mojave to Oshkosh flight.
One way of thinking about whether someone might fit in at Scaled is where they’d like to end up after Scaled. Although Seguin notes that Scaled’s turnover is relatively low, many of the engineers are young and single. Some of those decide to start a family or just want to try something new and move to a more urban environment, where they end up working as consultants (remember, these are people who are great at seeing the big picture) and entrepreneurs.
Go Small: Murdoch Manufacturing
While some younger homebuilders may be inspired by homebuilding to go into engineering, that is obviously a major educational commitment and one which older builders may not be able or willing to make. And quitting a secure job can be risky, or just not financially viable for some. However, there are certainly opportunities to make money in homebuilding with small startup costs that still allow room for growth. Dayton Murdoch is a prime example.
Dayton Murdoch machining parts in his shop. Murdoch says his previous experience as a machinist made the transition to producing custom aviation parts “pretty seamless.”
Murdoch has been machining aircraft and medical-grade assemblies for over 36 years, so the jump into independent manufacturer of Experimental aircraft parts was, he admits, “pretty seamless.” Nevertheless, Murdoch started small: He began building an RV-4 in 1990 (his -4 appeared on the cover of our August 2014 issue), but dissatisfied with the quadrant offered by Van’s Aircraft, he fabricated his own. It was natural to capitalize on his machining skills, and he gradually grew his product offering to throttle quadrants, lightweight tailwheels, and heavy-duty pitot tubes. He’s now on his 5th-generation quadrant and, as of 2015, has surpassed 4000 quadrants.
“Being a manufacturer also means standing behind your product—having the funds and honesty necessary to deal with problems if products don’t deliver,” says Murdoch. For example, improper vulcanization of the rubber on a set of tailwheels led to the solid rubber tires rolling off the wheel. “I replaced 83 units,” says Murdoch, “at my cost, of course.”
Staying on top of the manufacturing game requires constant vigilance and improvement. Murdoch’s quadrants are in their 5th iteration with a bevy of small improvements that improve safety and function: They are now assembled with bolts rather than screws (reducing the labor required for tapping threads). Lever spacing allows proper accommodation of control cable clevises. A double-hinge design means that the main pivot screw can be lost without the unit falling apart. Labels have been rotated 90 degrees to improve readability, and knobs are now anodized aluminum rather than painted wood.
Dayton notes that some manufacturers rest on their laurels once a product is out, and this can make it easy for an upstart to improve an existing product and compete. For example, Murdoch recently became interested in formation flying and the smoke systems that often go along with it. After looking into what was available on the market, he decided he could build a better system for less. “The manufacturer hasn’t done any R&D for five years,” says Murdoch. “His products are heavy and expensive. It would be pretty easy for someone else to come and re-engineer that system to be lighter, easier to use, and less expensive.”
Murdoch shows the evolution of his throttle quadrants. Constantly updating and improving products is the key to success, says Murdoch.
One caveat Murdoch did note was that larger engineering firms sometimes approach smaller manufacturers to subcontract jobs. On several occasions Murdoch has invested considerable time and money to custom-make quadrant assemblies for well-known companies, only to have them award a contract for his design to an overseas shop. Along with needing to be thick-skinned when dealing with difficult customers, Murdoch advises those doing subcontract work to read the fine print of any contracts they sign, and consult with a lawyer if necessary.
One benefit of starting small is that it allows you to control how much time and money you are able or willing to invest. It also allows you to keep your day job. Murdoch only switched to full time manufacturing two years ago.
Go Pro: Builder Assist
Freeflight Composites of Peyton, Colorado was started 11 years ago by Burrall Sanders and his wife Joyce. Sanders had just finished his own VariEze and was approached by other builders with requests to help on their projects. Though employed with a secure job as a heavy-equipment mechanic, Sanders was tired of his job and quit to start a builder’s assist center that currently has three full-time employees in addition to himself. Freeflight Composites focuses on plastic planes, namely the Rutan EZ canards, but also Lancairs, Glasairs, and Cozys. “Not only do we do builder assist,” says Sanders, “but we also help owners and pilots with condition inspections, modifications, maintenance and repair, and we do a lot of insurance work as well.
Darla Slee of Freeflight Composites works on the gear intersection fairings of a Long-EZ. Slee’s previous experience as a jeweler trained her eye to hunt for detail, which is a skill that carries over nicely to work at Freeflight Composites.
“The benefit of this kind of job is that I get to look forward to work in the morning, and I get to work for myself.” Sanders also noted that even though he was concerned about the backlash from the Great Recession of 2008, it ultimately did not seem to have a direct impact; they stayed busy and have even expanded since then. On the other hand, Sanders notes that many of his clients are building EZs because they want to save money. “So if a guy comes to me and wants extensive help on his project, he has to know right up front that it is going to cost him a lot more that way than if he just did it himself.”
Aside from the monetary benefits, Sanders enjoys helping enthusiastic clients achieve their dreams. He contrasts this to the contractors he used to work for who considered him pure overhead and hated to have to pay for maintenance from day one. This is one theme that recurred several times while researching this article: Some people are already working as mechanics, engineers, or pilots, but the corporate drive to maximize productivity takes the joy out of work. For some, it’s worth the pay cut to go out on their own and do the same or similar work, but at a pace that is enjoyable, gives them time to make products of which they can feel proud, and have more time for family or other pursuits.
Burrall Sanders checking out the Garmin avionics in a customer’s Velocity TXL-5. Sanders says the key to making it as a builder assist center is top-quality work and honesty with customers.
Sanders’ only words of wisdom to those thinking of making a go of it was the importance of straight dealing with customers: “We jealously guard our reputation. We’ve never paid for advertising; it’s all word of mouth. That comes from having a transparent operation, as well as being highly competent and not willing to compromise safety in any way. If people understand that, they’ll have confidence in your operation, and it will keep you busy.”
Making a Small Fortune
Hopefully this article has shown that channeling your passion for homebuilding into a means of employment is feasible, and that the most important first step is to have a clear understanding of your skills and a game plan to make it work. Best of luck and hopefully we’ll be reviewing your gadget or plane in these pages someday. Just remember that old aviation chestnut: “The best way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a large one!”