COMMENTARY / GUEST EDITORIAL
The impact of homebuilt aircraft in GA
MY EAA MEMBERSHIP NUMBER is 3204, issued when I was 17
years old. I’ve seen the homebuilt movement grow from a
novelty to a position of prominence in general aviation. It’s
evolved from single-seat, open-cockpit homebuilts to 300-
mph turbocharged speedsters and, perhaps more importantly,
everything in between. It’s been a fascinating journey, and it’s
not over. More than 31,000 airplanes are currently registered
under the experimental amateur-built classification in the
United States. In a world of increasingly mechanized and
automated production of almost all commodities, this is a most
Why? I think the primary reasons for the popularity of
homebuilts are performance, affordability, and design freedom.
“Affordability” has been synonymous with homebuilt aircraft
since the early 1930s. While new homebuilts are now more
expensive than older used aircraft, they are new aircraft, without
the need for expensive replacement parts and service. They can
also be affordably maintained by their builders. But the term
“affordability” must be qualified. Homebuilts are almost always
more affordable than comparable factory-built aircraft because
builders do not charge themselves for labor. In many instances,
truly comparable factory aircraft just don’t exist!
The word “experimental” in our licensing category
embodies the philosophy and appeal of homebuilt aircraft.
The experimental category is a nursery for innovation and
original thinking. Pilots and designers express their creativity
and ingenuity by designing and building airplanes suited to
their individual tastes. The result is the current fleet of diverse
personal aircraft including some advanced high-performance
and high-efficiency designs. It’s no accident that the majority of
new production aircraft introduced over the past 15 years can
trace their lineage to homebuilt designs and companies.
However, most contemporary homebuilts continue to
follow tried and true aerodynamic and structural themes. After
more than a century of worldwide experimentation, science
and conventional wisdom have pretty well straightened the
pathway to success. The homebuilder/designer draws from this
repository of knowledge and experience to optimize aircraft
designed for specialized personal-use goals, not constrained
by economies of scale that force production aircraft to be more
utilitarian and meet the needs of a broader user base. As a
result, homebuilt aircraft have evolved to satisfy specialized
niche markets. Fast two-seat airplanes and aerobatic aircraft are
perhaps the most common examples of homebuilts filling voids
left by light aircraft manufacturers.
Homebuilts have served admirably as a testing ground for
new ideas and technology. For instance, composite construction
was widely used in homebuilt aircraft long before it showed
up in factory-made airplanes. Electronic advances have far
outpaced mechanical advances in recent years, and amateur-built experimentals serve as a proving ground for the new
generation of avionics, autopilots, engine monitoring systems,
and flight displays. Developers have the opportunity to field test
their wares in the experimental world without expensive and
cumbersome certification requirements. The result is the ability
to more economically equip both amateur-built and production
aircraft with the latest technological gadgets.
Perhaps the most import role played by homebuilt aircraft is
the invigoration of all of general aviation. Homebuilts provide a
hope for a brighter future, even for those not directly involved.
Certainly, a large number of people have been motivated to learn
to fly, renew their flying, or become more active in aviation as a
result of the excitement generated by the “sporty” homebuilts
they have seen.
The common interest bond that develops among homebuilt
aircraft builders and owners is an underlying strength not
always considered. Many builders have confided to me that
the close and valuable friendships formed while building are
more precious to them than the aircraft they built. This bond
flows from the strong feelings of accomplishment and pride of
craftsmanship and can only be fully shared with other builders.
The enduring legacy of the homebuilt/experimental aircraft
movement includes a growing fleet of wonderful personal-use
airplanes, a hospitable environment for innovators and dreamers,
and a worldwide network of enthusiastic builder/pilots.
Richard VanGrunsven, EAA 3204, is the designer, founder, and CEO of Van’s
Aircraft in Aurora, Oregon.