$12,000 or more. What the difference reflects is the
investment in tooling and jigs that has been developed to
produce fuselages that are 100 percent identical, the cost
of labor to trim and weld the tubing, the fabrication of
hundreds of tabs and stand-offs and the seeming millions
of other small pieces. And then the manufacturer has to
add a portion of his overhead, his cost of money (
financing) and, finally, a profit margin. A plansbuilder has the
same costs, but they are invisible because they are part of
his personal cost of living.
Another serious advantage is that you can move at the
same pace the cash comes in. There’s nothing that says you
have to buy all the materials at one time to build the entire
airframe. Buy enough steel, wood, aluminum, or composite
material to build the tail, for instance. Or an aileron. Or a
seat back. An amazing amount can be done with $500 of raw
materials, almost regardless of what those materials are.
A smaller building space, at least at the beginning, is
another plans-built advantage. Since a plans-built airplane
comes in the door as a mailing tube, buckets of resin, and
rolls of cloth, or big flat packages, there’s no immediate
need for a substantial shop area. Significant room isn’t
needed until you’re well along and the raw material begins
to resemble major airplane parts. If you purchase a quick-build kit, you’re immediately faced with the need to store
what amounts to an entire airplane broken down into its
major components, all of which are fragile and expensive.
Just as cost is the big advantage, time is the big disadvantage. And therein lies the trade-off that involves the most
gut-wrenching decisions: how much is your time worth,
and are the finances there to do otherwise? Let’s face it,
money is becoming the deciding factor on a lot of projects, both in and out of aviation, so none of us should be
ashamed to admit that the plans-built route is the only
one open to us. In that case, we have to ignore what our
time is worth because the decision has been made for us:
throw time at a plans-built, or don’t do it at all.
And how much time are we talking about? The quick
answer is a lot! The exact amount will vary depending
on the type of airplane. There are no hard rules. Oddly
enough, the actual size of the airplane doesn’t change
the time all that much. A two-place Bearhawk Patrol, for
instance, won’t differ from the four-place Bearhawk by
more than 5 percent to 8 percent (that’s an estimate). And
a two-place Wittman Tailwind is only going to take 10
percent to 15 percent more time than a single-place Cassutt racer. The only difference is that the individual pieces
of one are going to be further apart and larger than on the
other. Where the real time difference comes in, within
given types of airplanes, is the amount of time spent on
exotic paint jobs, fancy interiors, and outrageous instrument panels, all of which tend to be extravagant. Coincidentally, this is also where most of the additional weight
and expense comes from. Build simple and it’ll be light
and less expensive.
Although it’s a rough estimate, the average build time
for a traditional plans-built is going to be 3,000-4,000
hours, give or take 1,000 hours. Again, engaging in edu-
cated guessing, the plans-built will take three to four times
as long as a comparable quick-build kit—assuming one is
available, which quite often isn’t the case. For instance,
there are few, if any, quick-build kits for any of the more
popular biplanes. Components, yes. Quick-builds, no.
Some suppliers, like Steen Aero Lab and Aircraft Spruce &
Specialty, make materials kits available as well as pre-man-
ufactured components for a range of different aircraft, but
they don’t produce quick-build kits for them.
The Middle Ground
Just as hard decisions have to be made concerning the
trade-off between time and dollars, the same could be said
for the trade-off between the plans-builder’s peace-of-mind
and items that are outside of the builder’s capabilities.
Some builders opt for buying those major components
that worry them the most, like motor mounts, landing
gears, and spars. This concept could extend all the way up
to purchasing all the steel parts, including fuselages, where
applicable. However, in almost all cases, the time and effort
of learning to weld is well worth it and not difficult. The
same could not be said for machined parts.
Although most homebuilts have a limited number of
machined parts, they are often outside of the capabilities of
most homebuilders, so buying them ready-made or farming them out is often the only path open to builders.
How to Get Started
Getting started in plans-building is no different than
going with a kit-built. The steps are identical, and none
of them have anything to do with the final, and most
agonizing, decision: Picking the design.
Define Your Mission: What do you want to do with
the airplane? Enjoy sunsets? Run for hamburgers? Go visit
Grandma three states over? Get serious about aerobatics?
And, do you need one, two, or four seats?
From top: Cozy and Pietenpol