So, your flying club is interested in adding another aircraft to its fleet … maybe something with a little more performance, a little newer with modern avionics and more fun to fly.
Naturally, you’ll start looking at some of the popular homebuilt aircraft. It is completely logical to go down this path as there are some outstanding homebuilt designs. Most of today’s homebuilts constructed from kits look just as good or better than what is available on the single-engine piston used market. The kit aircraft of today are usually well-engineered, well-designed kits that provide an excellent aircraft once built. What’s not to love?
Before proceeding with a purchase of a flying homebuilt, especially in a club environment, you need to understand a couple of things. What we typically call a “homebuilt” has an experimental amateur-built (E-AB) airworthiness certificate. For an aircraft to qualify for this “special” airworthiness certificate, the aircraft must have met the requirements of 14 CFR 21.191(g), Operating Amateur-Built Aircraft. The main requirement of this regulation is that amateur(s) built the major portion of the aircraft for education or recreation. That’s it!
If an amateur builds 51 percent or more of an aircraft for education or recreation, the aircraft qualifies for this airworthiness certificate. The FAA shows up at the end of the build, inspects it for any obvious safety of flight issues, determines it was built by an amateur, reviews the required paperwork, and issues the airworthiness certificate along with a set of operating limitations that govern the use of the aircraft. The aircraft is then flight tested, typically for 40 hours, and after a logbook entry noting the aircraft flight testing is complete, it can be used like most other aircraft within the United States.
Just like any aircraft, a thorough pre-buy inspection is necessary. I would say it is even more important with an E-AB. With your typical Cessna or Piper, you can assume a certain level of quality has been maintained during original manufacture and ongoing maintenance. Not so with an E-AB; it could be better or worse than what you find in a factory-produced aircraft.
Remember, by definition, an amateur who may have had no background or training before starting construction, built the aircraft. Even if the amateur was a real craftsman, there was no quality control program during the build. It is not uncommon on a Van’s Aircraft kit, for example, for the builder to build two tail kits. The builder typically start on the tail and by the time he or she finishes the rest of the aircraft, they are really good at riveting and their workmanship has improved so much that they build a second tail to replace their first one.
Another area that needs review is the electrical wiring of the aircraft. Many E-AB have awesome panels with dual glass displays and all the latest bells and whistles. One quick glance under the panel can tell you a lot about the quality of the wiring. If everything is neatly routed, bundled and labeled, that is a great sign. However, you may discover a rat’s nest of wires that would be a maintenance nightmare. There may or may not be a wiring diagram to help with any future avionics troubleshooting. This could really cost your club if you have to pay someone to unscramble the rat’s nest.
E-AB are not as paperwork intensive as a standard-category aircraft, but there are still some key things to be checked. The required onboard paperwork acronym AROW still works for an E-AB and stands for Airworthiness certificate, Registration, Operating limitations and Weight and balance. All four of these documents must be onboard for flight. One of the most common paperwork problems I’ve seen in the field is the operating limitations missing from the aircraft.
A word about operating limitations since this is an area of confusion with many builders. Operating limitations are regulatory requirements rather than performance guidelines. When the airworthiness certificate is issued, the builder also receives a set of operating limitations that act as regulations specific to that individual aircraft. The operating limitations are considered to be a part of the airworthiness certificate and must be onboard the aircraft. If you don’t stay in compliance with your operating limitations, you have effectively invalidated your airworthiness certificate and possibly your insurance. Operating limitations spell out key things like the requirements for documenting the conclusion of flight testing, whether the aircraft is allowed to perform aerobatics, the need for an annual condition inspection, what to do when a major change is made to the aircraft and much more. It is imperative for a buyer to review the operating limits and the related logbooks to insure that the appropriate logbook entries have been made.
The flying club environment can be tough on an airframe. New pilots tend to be harder on landing gear, brakes, tires, and canopies as they develop their skills. Most E-AB were not specifically designed as trainers so they may not stand up to this type of abuse quite as well as the tried and true Cessna 150. This could result in more repairs and down time for an E-AB pressed into the flying club environment.
Pilot Transition Issues
All E-AB aircraft are required to have a flight test period to prove out the aircraft, document Vx, Vy and Vso and prove the aircraft has no hazardous operating characteristics and is in a condition for safe operation. Unfortunately, not all builders perform a true flight test program. Instead, they bore holes in the sky for 40 hours, write down the kit manufacturers published numbers and sign it off as safe for flight. So, the aircraft your club is interested in may have been thoroughly flight tested or maybe not. You will need to dig into the numbers with the builder to determine the answer.
Generally, E-AB have more responsive handling characteristics than a standard category aircraft. Pitch and roll can be significantly more sensitive and intolerant of overcontrolling than your average trainer. Once they adjust to this responsiveness, most pilots enjoy it. However, during this learning period, these handling characteristics can lead to trouble. Appropriate transition training is always a good practice for pilots moving from certified aircraft to E-AB. Refer to FAA Advisory Circular 90-109A Transition to Unfamiliar Aircraft for detailed guidance.
Although I’ve outlined various issues with using an E-AB in a flying club, your first call should probably be to your insurance broker to discuss the E-AB designs you have in mind. The cost of insuring an E-AB is probably the only area where homebuilts are more expensive. There are several contributing factors but a key one is that to repair a damaged homebuilt, the insurance company will struggle to find a shop to do the work, especially if the aircraft is unconventional (e.g. composite), thereby driving up the cost of repair. The other key area talking to a broker can uncover is the accident record of the design. Obviously, the price reflects how often the insurance company has to pay a claim.
I think homebuilding is one of the most enjoyable aviation activities and would strongly encourage an individual to build, but it may not be the best answer for a flying club aircraft. Finished and flying homebuilts generally demand more of the owner/operator in both piloting skill, maintenance skill and TLC in general. Where I have seen an E-AB fit well in a club environment is when the club builds the aircraft. Having a deep understanding of the building process and having members involved in the construction of the aircraft offsets many of the downsides outlined above. Perhaps instead of buying that homebuilt, your club should build one instead!