I Built This Plane Myself, Really I Did, and It Flies!

by Stephan Wilkinson

This article appeared in the December 9, 2003 Science Special section of the New York Times.

[Steve did not write the headline.]

MAN AND HIS MACHINE. The author with the Falco airplane he built from a kit.

WHEN I tell people that I built an airplane, most assume that I mean a radio-controlled model. "No, it's one-to-one scale, life-size," I say. Others assume I have assembled an ultralight plane, one of those fabric-winged, snowmobile-engined flitters that looks like a lawn chair suspended from a bedsheet.

Not really. My 180-horsepower Falco was a sleek, beautiful, classic Italian design that cruised easily at 205 miles an hour, had a built-in oxygen system and climbed to 20,000 feet and higher - turboprop territory - and flew in good weather and bad. It also flew far: when I sold it and the new owner moved to Melbourne, Australia, he had a professional pilot fly the plane 14,000 miles - from Oregon cross-country, then over the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, the Middle East, India and the Malay Peninsula to Australia.

It would be less surprising for most people to learn that I had built a car instead of a flying machine. But cars are complicated, filled with thousands of parts that move and slide, rotate and reciprocate, jiggle and clank. Airplanes are comparatively simple, with a few control surfaces actuated by cables or rods and an engine that churns a propeller through the air.

In the early 1980's, a variety of suppliers began to market aircraft kits, freeing builders from relying solely on blueprints and shopping for diverse materials. Virtually any dedicated do-it-yourselfer with a well-equipped workshop can put together one of the many kit-built designs that are available. Although if the word "kit" suggests a breezy "insert tab A in slot B" process, think again. It takes thousands of obsessive hours to build an airplane like mine, and though some well-organized builders can assemble a kit in less than a year, five and even 10 years are more typical.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a particularly grim form of home-built-aircraft accident: a fatal crash on the new plane's first flight. Though most home-builts are inherently safe - the accident rate is less than 1 percent higher than it is for factory-built aircraft - what too often happens is that builders have neither the time nor the money to assemble both a plane and keep up their flying talents, and the demands of suddenly becoming a test pilot exceed their rusty skills. (I let a highly experienced semiprofessional pilot friend make the first flight in my Falco, which performed flawlessly.)

The simplest and least expensive kits - sunny Sunday runabouts of double-digit speeds - can be built for $5,000 or less. At the other end of the spectrum are turbocharged, pressurized, 350-m.p.h., high-altitude rocket ships costing as much as $500,000 to build, with all-weather performance comparable to that of a World War II fighter. It took me five years of uncounted man-hours and $83,000 to build my Falco (which I sold for a $12,000 profit after flying it for 400 hours).

Today, there are 170,000 home-building enthusiasts throughout the world - most in the United States - who are members of the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wis., and so named because home-built aircraft are registered by the Federal Aviation Administration in the "experimental" category. This category basically means that passengers must be made aware that they are flying in an amateur-built machine, and that the aircraft cannot be flown for profit.

Not all of the association's members are actually building planes, but enough have done so, so that 25,000 home-built aircraft - more than 15 percent of the entire fleet of single-piston-engine aircraft in the United States - are registered with the F.A.A., and approximately 1,000 more join the fleet each year. With this many amateur projects taking flight, the F.A.A.'s inspection of home-builts is moderate to minimal, depending on the workload and ability of the local General Aviation District Office.

Ultimately, the home-building hobby is self-policing, for only a fool would build an airplane carelessly. But since fools do fly, the F.A.A.'s main interest is not the pilot's safety but the public's. A brand-new home-built is allowed to travel no farther than 25 nautical miles from its home airport, and only over relatively unpopulated areas, for the first 25 flying hours (40 hours if it has an uncertified engine). If the airplane continues to operate normally for that long, the F.A.A. figures it is safe enough, and issues a certificate of airworthiness.

One thing that cannot be homemade, however, is a pilot's license. Pilots of home-built planes require the same training and certification as any Cessna or Piper pilot. There have been cases, though, of student pilots building a plane in which they take their flight training and earn an F.A.A. license.

Home-built planes are as old as aviation, for the first do-it-yourselfers were, of course, Wilbur and Orville Wright. But the hobby really took off in the mid-70's, when the use of composites - essentially lightweight fiberglass - were pioneered to create virtually any airframe shape easily and rapidly. Factory-built Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches to this day are laboriously and expensively fabricated of thin aluminum sheets hand-riveted together over a complex metal skeleton; the unyielding metal means wings are straight, fuselages are tubular and tails quite conventional.

This is not so with home-builts, which allow a pilot's imagination to percolate. Few people build an airplane to save money, because there are plenty of used factory-built airplanes on the market that provide roughly the same performance for the dollar. What they do not provide, however, is the "Wow, what's that?" double take that a classy home-built provokes at the local airport. Want a replica World War I Fokker? A swept-wing "Star Wars" fantasy? A luxury four-seater with near-jet performance? A world-class aerobatic single-seater? Clear off the workbench and start building.

Stephan Wilkinson is the automotive editor of Condé Nast Traveler.