Why Build Your Own Airplane?

Why Would Somebody Want to Build an Airplane?

My personal reasons for wanting an airplane are probably similar to many others who are doing this. I dream of being able to travel and see this great country of ours. Consider that there are probably several hundred commercial airports in this country that you can buy a ticket and fly to on a standard commercial airline. But there are thousands of small airports and private airstrips. Odds are, there is one within a few miles of anywhere you want to go, anywhere in this country. That's an amazing thing to think about. But a big factor in my dream is just the sheer fun of flying! Would you like to see what it's like to fly in an RV-7A? Watch this.

But before I get too sidetracked explaining why I want an airplane, this page is supposed to be about why would I want to build one. Many people think you're crazy for even thinking about doing such a thing. I know this isn't for everybody, but I would like to explain why I came to the conclusion that it's the right thing for me.

Why not save myself all this work and time and just go buy a new airplane?

If you have ever looked into this, you know the answer. To begin with, airplanes are expensive. New ones are VERY expensive. If money were no object, I probably would have bought one already. But like most folks, I live in the real world. And since new airplanes like the one I would be interested in approach the cost of buying a house, you have to start thinking of alternatives. You either compromise your dream and lower your standards, or forget the whole idea. Or... consider building one of these! It wasn't that long ago that I didn't even know this was an option.

Okay, so how about buying a used one? Well, sometime you should check out the fleet of used aircraft for sale. You can look online, or pick up a copy of "Trade-A-Plane" and thumb through it. You would be shocked at what aircraft cost that are 20, 30, or even 40 years old. Do you want to fly around in an airplane that old? And take your loved ones with you? Maybe... if it's been well kept and maintained, but what are you in for in terms of maintenance costs? Repairs? This brings us to another thing you have to consider. You can't even work on your own plane, the way you can work on your car. In order to comply with regulations and keep it airworthy, everything has to be done by a certified "A & P" mechanic. So even if you can afford to buy one, keep your wallet handy for all the expenses about to hit you as you try to maintain it.

So the bottom line is, there's a HUGE economic incentive to build your own. I can build in the features and performance of a plane that would cost several hundred thousand dollars for tens of thousands of dollars. I can put instruments, engines and avionics in my plane that would be illegal to install in a Cessna. There's a revolution going on in aviation technology, and I can take advantage of the latest modern instrumentation that will make my plane safer and easier to fly. I will have the freedom to use technology that won't be in production aircraft for another ten years. How many $50,000 airplanes have you seen that had an autopilot linked to a GPS navigation system? Well, mine will have one. If you like to build things, what could be more fun and rewarding to build than a real airplane?

Now, I've never owned an airplane, but I would like to quote someone who has. A friend of mine, Dan Checkoway, lives in California and built his own RV-7. Before he built his RV, he owned a couple of Mooneys. His website was a source of tremendous inspiration to me as I contemplated the big question. I corresponded with him a couple of times. I followed his project online for months before finally starting my own. Since he has owned his own planes before, he has the perspective of both worlds. Look at what he said about this question:

...this was first posted by Dan Checkoway on the Van's Airforce forums. Duplicated here.

I used to own an M20F and an M20J. Loved them until I knew better. Ask Mooney drivers what their annuals cost and if they're totally happy with the quality of service they receive from their A&Ps. I suspect the average will be less than perfect.

My first annual on my RV-7 cost about $105. This year will be a real whopper at about $400 (adding and replacing a few things). My last few annuals on the Mooneys cost anywhere between $2500 and $4500. A $10,000 annual on a Mooney is not unheard of. Corrosion of the steel cage, corrosion of pushrods and rod ends, landing gear issues (i.e. nosegear oversteered by FBO ground personnel, etc.), and of COURSE weeping fuel tanks which seems to plague rougly 1 in 2 Mooneys at any given time. Resealing the tanks is not cheap.

So cut to building...

Building your RV-10 (or whatever) will, simply put, change your life. After all of the blood, sweat, and tears, you exit the tunnel with an airplane you built with your own two hands -- an airplane that you are now completely authorized to maintain in its entirety. The FAA hands you that Repairman Certificate for your airplane, and you are now utterly free of the monkeys that turn wrenches and charge you a fortune for less-than-perfect work. Quality is in your control. You can take your sweet time doing maintenance. You can do it on your schedule. You set the bar.

Not to mention that you have the ability to use the absolute most modern equipment -- powerplant options, propellers, and of course that fantastic panel full of glass or what have you, which won't be an option in your Mooney.

Cutting-edge technology, freedom from shoddy quality, all at about the same price. The real cost? A few years of your life. But during those years you will learn more about airplanes than you ever imagined possible. Your life truly will be changed.

Do you want to just fly around in something you don't know and have to pay to have maintained potentially imperfectly? Or do you want to fly around in something that is undoubtedly safe, ridiculously modern, customized to your every whim, and your pride and joy that you built with your own two hands?

I did enjoy flying the M20J since I knew no better at the time. I will never own a certificated airplane again.

)_( Dan
RV-7 N714D (1736 hours as of Dec. 8, 2008)

Well said, huh? Now... considering this alternative... what if it were possible to buy a kit and assemble a quality aircraft with a proven design, a history of success, a great network of people involved in the hobby, and high performance, for about the price of a new luxury car? For about what you might spend on that Mercedes, Cadillac, sports car, or Lexus (or less) you can have a brand new airplane! Not only that, but it's a high-performance airplane that's fully aerobatic, flies real fast and lands real slow, is great for cross-country use, and handles like a dream.

I've only scratched the surface, but when you add that all up, it looks better and better. And I haven't even mentioned the community of fellow builders, the wonderful friends you'll make and great people you'll meet. You just can't believe how good it all is until you really look into it.

Rick & Lori Threet's RV-7A. What a beauty! I hope they don't mind me borrowing this picture. Other than the canopy shown here (this is a slider model... mine will be a tip-up) this is one example of an RV-7A and what mine might look like when I'm finished with it. At this point, I'm undecided about how to paint it, what colors, etc.

Since I started this project, and I'm about halfway into it now, I've learned some things. Some very important things I've discovered that I never even thought about, that have nothing to do with airplanes. Lessons in life, you might say. Or, another word I like to use, a serendipity. What's a serendipity? The dictionary defines it as making a desirable discovery by accident. Or, finding an unexpected benefit. It's something wonderful that happens that you never expected!

See, when I started this project, it began as a means to an end. I wanted an airplane and this seemed like the most practical way to have the airplane that I wanted at a price that I could afford. As I said earlier, if money was no object, I would have just bought one. I knew this would be no small undertaking and take many months or even years to complete. I wasn't looking forward to all the time and effort involved, but I'm such a practical person and it just made so much sense. But now that I'm roughly halfway into it, I've learned some amazing things that I would have never anticipated learning. Things about myself.

I've learned that as nice as it will be to have an airplane, this is much more than a means to an end. It's more rewarding along the way than I would have ever guessed. It's really all about the journey. Now if you're rolling your eyes at a statement like that, I once did, too. But seriously, I'm enjoying this journey. This project. I'm enjoying all the little milestones along the way. I'm enjoying all the accomplishments and the gratification one gets from a task or a job well done. I can't tell you how good it felt to set that first rivet. To get my rudder finished. To finish the fuel tanks and have them test leak free. To rivet the bottom skins on the wings and call them finished. I could go on and on. Yes, there are days when you're frustrated, not motivated, or discouraged. Something goes wrong. You put a smilie dent in something or ruin a part. You want to just throw in the towel and walk away. But when you work your way through those times and come out with a finished whatever-it-is, it's SO worth it! Everyone who has a flying RV says "keep pounding those rivets... it's worth it". You'll have the famous "RV grin" when it's all done. Well, I'm here to tell you that the RV grin begins long before your first flight. I'm having them all the time these days. That's the serendipity. I really believe now that every person should be involved with a big project of some kind during their life. Something BIG. Something so big that it takes years to finish.

At first, I thought "oh my god... I don't know if I have what it takes to spend years doing a huge monstrous project like building an airplane." But you learn things about patience. Perserverence. Following through. Committment. Who would argue that these are good values to cultivate? We live in a culture that's so oriented to having everything you want right now. Instant gratification. This project has really brought me down to earth and grounded me in values I believe in. There's the serendipity. Again. Do you know the average American watches 3 to 4 hours of TV every day? What does that do for you? What will you have to show for it, 3 or 4 years from now? The way I see it, I'm investing TV time into this project. I realized I couldn't remember the shows I saw last week, let alone last month or last year. Why not turn those hours into something valuable and rewarding? So I decided to put down the remote, get rid of the easy chair, pick up some tools and charts, manuals, and books, and start pounding some rivets!

How do you eat an elephant, as the old saying goes? Answer: one bite at a time. That's how you have to look at this. It's the old story about the tortoise and the hare. Slow, steady progress is good progress. This isn't a race. An hour a day is better than slamming it together in a rush. I just didn't think I would enjoy the process this much.

The most intimidating part of it, for me, was thinking about all the electrical wiring. I went to a monthly meeting once a few years ago at some guys garage and saw his unfinished project nearing completion. He was in the middle of wiring and had a forest of wires going everywhere and all I could think of was "oh my god... how on earth will I learn how to do that?" Fortunately, he told me that you don't look at the forest. You look at one tree at a time. If you can take one wire at a time from a starting point to an end point, that's all there is to it. I said "yeah! I can do that!" Now it's funny how things have reversed and turned around... people come to my house and when they see what I'm doing in the shop, they look at the drawings and the manual, shake their heads and roll their eyes.. and say something like "oh my god..." to me. I'm now the one reassuring them.

Another thing I decided right up front was that I did not want to go into debt for this project. You can do this debt free if you wish by building a kit spread out over time. You buy a series of subkits. You don't have to invest all the money at once. I don't owe anyone a nickel on this project so far, and I intend to finish it that way. When it's done, it will be worth perhaps twice what I invested in it. And I will own it. How can you do that? Sit down and plan it out. I don't need that new car. I can drive the old one into the ground and put money into this in the meantime. I can put off buying clothes for a year, I have plenty hanging in the closet. I can stop spending money on all kinds of frivolous stuff. You get the idea.

So my adventure officially started in January 2007 when I picked up my tail kit and started on it. But it actually started long before that. Before I had money to get started, I worked on my garage to turn it into a comfortable shop. I cleaned it up, insulated it, sheetrocked the walls and ceiling, and painted. I installed old cabinets that came out of my kitchen after a remodel. I got rid of junk. I installed more lights and electrical outlets. I started accumulating tools. I shopped on eBay for a lot of them. I read and studied a lot. I went to meetings, got to know the local group, toured the factory, and educated myself. I went to a few fly-ins and looked at a lot of airplanes. A good friend of mine took me on a ride in his RV-6A. Wow... that did it for me!

So when will your project start? Think big... do something incredible with your life... even if it isn't an airplane.

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Contact me: swayze "at" europa.com (replace "at" with the @ sign... no spaces... you know the deal. Trying to avoid spam here)


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