Deciding to build an aircraft does not have to be one big, final decision. Someone considering jumping into kit building might wonder: Do I have the skills to make this all happen? Do I really want to do this? Can I afford the financial commitment? All of these concerns become much easier to handle by building your aircraft in stages with subkits.
Several of the major kit manufacturers (Zenith, Vans, Sonex, and RANS for example) recognize the issues needed for taking such a big plunge into building an aircraft. They have addressed these challenges by creating smaller, affordable sections of the aircraft for you to build before deciding to commit to the whole thing. With this method you can “try before you buy” with a less expensive subkit to experience and evaluate the effort it takes to build at your own pace. The minimal financial investment required reduces risk and lets you explore the possibility that a full aircraft build could be in your future. If building these parts does not meet your expectations, it will have been a small price to pay. Life is too short to wonder if this endeavor is right for you!
For those already committed to the entire aircraft project, subkits provide a way for builders to progress and spread out the project investment a piece at a time over the life of the project. This makes it a whole lot easier to finance the project. It should be noted that most kit manufacturers do not impose a cost penalty by purchasing subkits. In other words, whether you buy the entire kit whole or over time on your own schedule as subkits, the final price is nearly the same. Of course, shipping and crating costs will be greater for subkits when compared to shipping the whole thing at one time.
So how is an aircraft kit divided into subcomponents? Here is what to expect (although it will vary from one manufacturer to another). Usually, there will be at least four subkits consisting of the tail (empennage), wing, fuselage, and finishing section. These give you roughly quarter steps through to completion of the airframe. If you think biting off a quarter is still too big for an initial evaluation, a couple of manufacturers have made it even easier to test your abilities with a couple of smaller options.
Zenith Aircraft, for example, has a rudder starter kit for less than $400. If you complete the rudder, you will have demonstrated to yourself that you have the skills and can use the required tools for building the entire aircraft. This method is an extreme confidence builder and makes committing to the entire project easy! You can evaluate the documentation and what to expect regarding needed tools, skills, manuals and kit quality. Your completed rudder will eventually be installed on your aircraft. If you decide not to proceed further, you have still gained the knowledge of what it takes to build. Keep or sell the rudder. Still want some more handholding? Zenith offers factory workshops that will guide you through the rudder build so you can talk to experts while building. You will not leave the factory until you see a completed aircraft and get a demo flight!
Van’s Aircraft has a starter kit for building a control surface (part of a wing or flap, for example). They also have a metal toolbox kit, which you build in order to learn sheet metal and riveting skills. While these completed items do not become part of your aircraft, they do provide hands-on learning of the skills needed for their aircraft kits.
It is worth checking your favorite kit manufacturer’s website carefully for what starter kit products they may offer. Sometimes only their most popular aircraft models will have these options available. It is important to understand that the tools you will need are not included with an aircraft kit of any size. This is part of the education you need to obtain—learning what tools you need and how to use them. Often this information is clearly explained on the manufacturer’s website. Remember: They want and need you to succeed—especially with their starter kits or subkits.
Go ahead. Try something new. Purchase a starter kit and the necessary tools to get started building your own aircraft. You can probably do it. Amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic. Plane and simple.