Homebuilding Privileges and Responsibilities
KERRY FORES, EAA 131990
Ihave experienced both sides of the homebuilding fence;
first as a customer who scratch built a Sonex, Metal Illness,
and currently as a Sonex Aircraft employee providing
technical support to customers. A phone call I recently
received made me think about the incredible privileges
we enjoy as homebuilders, as well as the tremendous
responsibility we carry in our pursuit of homegrown
aviation. To be clear, I am addressing aircraft certificated as
experimental amateur-built, which are largely unrestricted
in what an individual can dream and build.
My caller asked whom he could hire to build a Sonex and
what it would cost. I told him he couldn’t hire anyone to
build his airplane, as that is not within the spirit, intent, or
regulations that govern the amateur-built aircraft category.
He countered that some people, himself included, do not
have the skills necessary to build an airplane, and he knows
of others who have made questionable—if not dangerous—
modifications to proven designs that, in his words, risk the
lives of the people who fly them.
The amateur-built category has given us freedom to dream
and to build. Some great, and some not-so-great, designs
have come out of garages, basements, and damp T-hangars.
I watched the Sonex prototypes take shape in a hangar
crowded with Cub and Vagabond restorations. I was also
privy to an attempted test flight of a rubber band-powered
airplane and saw a World War I Gotha bomber replica, to
be powered by Chevy 350 engines, take form. Neither of
the latter projects “got off the ground,” but the regulations
allowed those individuals to dream, build, and try.
There are many “experimental” successes: Van’s series of
RVs, the Pietenpol Air Camper (its slogan: “Experimental
for over 75 years”), the VariEze, the Wittman Tailwind, the
Sonex, and many others. These aircraft are not successes
because they are the products of “airplane factories;” they
are successes because they are good designs, each appealing
to their own markets. Most started life as an individual’s
dream, but good engineering and performance is why others
embraced them and why they now populate flightlines.
Had the rubber band-powered airplane enjoyed a successful
flight, then it would no doubt have its own following.
In the United States, more than any other country, we
enjoy the privilege to strap anything we want to our back
and try to fly. If your idea is truly outlandish (an outboard
motor attached to a 3-foot by 5-foot throw rug) the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) may issue flight restrictions
allowing your creation to fly only on the second Thursday
of each week, but you will get it certificated.
We have the privilege to design and build anything we
want. To retain that privilege, we must act responsibly.
But what does “responsibly” mean in the wild west of
I think we can agree that it would have been irresponsible
(though legal) to market kits for the rubber band-powered
airplane before it was proven. And the full-scale Gotha
bomber did eventually leave its nest, but in the form of scrap
4130 tubing. But bless them both for not just dreaming but
trying, and doing so responsibly.
Most of us are not interested in birthing an original
design under the annoying flicker of an aging fluorescent
bulb, so we look to existing designs. Many builders are sold
on a particular design with no desire to change anything—
some even timid about swapping out one bolt length for
another. Others make small changes to make an aircraft
“theirs.” I stuck faithfully to the plans while building Metal
Illness, but eliminated a line of rivets on the bottom of my
instrument panel, eliminated visible fasteners on my gear
leg fairings, and added fairings for wingtip and tail position
lights. All were cosmetic changes, nothing structural, but in
my mind “improvements.”
But what about structural changes, aerodynamic changes,
powerplant changes? All of the established, successful designs
have engineering and testing in their pedigree. The designer
knows what the aircraft will do, what it won’t do, and what it
shouldn’t do. And when properly built the customer should
be assured performance equal to the advertising. We took
a call once from a customer who wanted to turbocharge
a Sonex, make it a four-place, and give it retractable gear.
Designers have just as much responsibility as builders—
more, really: the responsibility to warn against dangerous
or untested changes to their design. Some builders propose
significant changes, like our friend. To most of us such
significant changes are obviously bad ideas.