Family Considerations: Before any of us jump into a
project as big as building an airplane, we have to realize
that there is no such thing as “free” time. It all comes
from somewhere. And if we have a family, part of our
time is theirs. That’s the nature of families. So, if we
start taking time from them, they have to be part of the
decision process about building an airplane. They have
to know it’s going to take time, and they have to agree
with it. We, on the other hand, have to do everything we
can to avoid stealing time from them to keep resentment
toward the airplane project from developing. That being
the case, we’d better be prepared to sleep less, install a TV
in the shop, and let our golfing/hunting/fishing buddies
know they are going to see less of us.
Work Space: When building a plans-built, at the beginning, a single-car garage will more than do the job, and
back bedrooms have been known to produce some very
nice airplanes. That, of course, is doing it the hard way
and works against finishing the project. The ideal space
would be a double garage. That’ll give us as much space as
is needed for most airplanes, start to finish, until it’s ready
for assembly at the airport.
Comfort Zones, Skill Sets, and All That
One aspect of going the plans-built route is that there is
a definite “good news, bad news” aspect concerning the
materials and the skills required to work them, and this
is what divides plans-builders and quick-builders. The
quick-builder would say that the bad news attached to
building from plans is that regardless of what material is
From top: Fisher Dakota Hawk and Pober Junior Ace.
34 FEBRUARY 2009
used in the airplane, the builder has to develop (notice I
didn’t say “possess”) every skill required to handle every
operation needed. However, those builders imbued with
the plans-builder mind-set don’t see the fact that they
have to cut and grind, miter and glue, weld, and bond as
bad news. It’s good news. They like the concept of taking
nothing and making something out of it that flies.
All of this having been said, the skills and the attitudes
differ from material to material.
Aluminum. Building from aluminum requires more
attention to detail than the other mediums to avoid scratches and to make sure all of the components align perfectly.
It is more like making jewelry than the other materials. It
also takes longer to get pieces that actually look like airplane
parts, but once the components are riveted together, they
are airworthy and ready to fly. Paint is optional.
Composites. Although most builders have little or no
familiarity with composites, the learning curve is quickly
climbed, and within certain limitations, it may be the
most forgiving, fastest material in which to build.
Rag and tube. The welding required unnecessarily
spooks many builders, but it is an easily learned skill.
The same holds true for fabric-covering and rag-wing
construction (most often wood). Rag and tube is so
traditional, there are always people around who have a
“feel” for the material and can help us out. There’s more
major visual progress earlier here than with aluminum,
but much more drawn-out finishing is involved once the
basic airframe is completed.
Wood. Airplanes built entirely out of wood are relatively rare, although some of the fastest plans-built aircraft (Falco) and the slowest (Pietenpol) are mostly wood.
Wood is in almost everyone’s comfort zone, but the parts
count is generally higher than with the other materials
(gussets, corner blocks, etc.). Correctly designed, a wood
airplane can be one of the very lightest.
Picking a Design
Many plans-built designs have been around for decades,
and some would have disappeared if Jim Irwin at Aircraft
Spruce hadn’t stepped in. His company bought the rights
to many plans-built designs and continues to sell the
plans along with a varying number of components for
designs he owns as well as designs others own.
I asked him if the art of building from plans is dying
out, and he replied, “No, not at all. In fact, it is quite
consistent. However, even though we own the rights to
a number of different designs, year after year, the Cozy is
consistently the sales leader. I think it’s the combination
of being both composite and four-place.”
In some ways, picking a design for a plans-built can
be simpler than for a kit, if nothing else because there
are fewer to choose from. However, all of the foregoing
considerations (mission, family, etc.) still apply. Also, be
advised that many of the plans-built designs come from
plans or parts purveyors only, not a factory, so the fac-
tory support normally associated with a kit isn’t there.
Where that once was a problem, the Internet has now
filled much of the void. There are very few designs out
there that don’t have some sort of online builders’ group
attached to them. The groups may be unofficial, but the
members support one another and perform the Q & A
function that’s always part of building a kit.