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Technical Difficulties: Are You a Builder or a Flyer?

By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911

This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the April 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

“Robert?”

“Yes, this is Robert.”

“I’m calling about the Pulsar XP kit you have for sale.”

“Yes. It is half-done. I have most of the parts.”

“I’d like to come see it.”

“Sure, come on.”

I looked again at the ad, circled in blue. I wanted to know why Robert had not finished and flown the aircraft after he’d bought the kit in 1995. The mid-90s was a sweet spot for the little two-place composite, with Aero Designs pouring them out as fast as it could. At this point, it was 2010. The Pulsar was not a 15-year build.

I hoped that everything was in good shape. I had already built a Pulsar and flown it in 1997. It was a two-year build, and that was while working a full-time job. In the early 2000s, I wanted to build again. To do that, I had to sell the Pulsar because I couldn’t afford to own two airplanes (seemingly a common malady).

The day I sold the airplane, I was beset with remorse that never went away. I was in love with the Pulsar, despite everything else I flew. Now I had a chance to get another kit. The factory had closed up so there was no way to get the original Pulsar XP kit from the factory.

Arriving at Robert’s house after a long drive, I was full of anticipation. It was a beautiful place for a build. The garage led to a spacious workshop. Both areas were littered with parts, boxes, and half-finished projects. I’ve got a bad feeling about this, I thought, echoing Han Solo.

I spotted the Pulsar fuselage in the corner and was drawn to it. What I saw made my heart sink. The fuselage seams and bulkheads had been completed with fiberglass that had been applied too dry, and in other sections the epoxy ratio was wrong and it was still sticky. Sections were disjointed with visible gaps, and other parts lay cracked underneath it on the floor. I didn’t want to look further.

“Robert, what caused you to stop working on this kit?”

“My dad bought the Pulsar kit for the high school, and it was there for three years,” he said. “With little supervision, the kids sort of made a mess. Then I brought it here thinking I would finish it, but it was too much for me. My heart wasn’t in it. I bought a Cessna 152. I’m super happy to be in the air. I’ve come to the realization that I’m not a builder.”

I didn’t leave with the Pulsar that day. But I knew I would build again. I know I’m a builder.

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Pilots are a diverse group. This is a good thing because one of the joys in life is variety and change. Change can be stressful, but it’s required in at least moderate amounts for living things. The key is achieving balance.

As I’ve visited aircraft build projects as a technical counselor over the years, I’ve noticed one thing that stays the same between the builds. The fit between the builder’s personality and the project complexity is a critical factor in completing the project and getting in the air safely.

I decided to analyze the reasons for success and the reasons for failure in the hope that we could get more projects finished and more pilots in the air in their own aircraft.

Consider taking the quiz (see below) to see where you fall in the strengths and weaknesses and loves and hates areas. Remember this is for fun, but also possibly revealing if you haven’t thought about these things before.

For detail and specifications on how the FAA classifies the aircraft in the list below, see Budd Davisson’s feature article, “A Newbie’s Guide to Sport Aviation: Getting started is the hard part,” in the January 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

Keep in mind that the generalizations I make for different categories of aircraft are just that: generalizations. There are so many different aircraft models in each category that there are many outliers. A perfect example is a high-performance experimental amateur-built with more complexity, like a Lancair, or a frame-up restoration that can take 10 to 15 years, like a Waco Cabin.

Difficulty Scales and Builder Types

1. Ultralights. Assembly hallmark: Simplicity. Maintenance: Easy.

There are so many ultralight models out there that it’s hard to make too many generalizations. However, this class of aircraft is straightforward to assemble and requires low build hours to get in the air. An example is the Kolb FireFly, a nimble high-wing tube-and-fabric kit that will take less than 300 hours to build. Most of this time will be fabric covering.

Builder/flyer type: Flyer. Great instructions and high-quality parts mean you will need common sense, attention to detail, and some skill in fabric or whatever materials the craft is built with. Fabric covering is straightforward, as are composites, wood, and metal. An EAA SportAir Workshops class will get you trained in a weekend.

There are many ultralights you can buy that don’t require build time, only a little assembly. Depending on your build versus fly equation, this could be a good choice.

Pitfalls: Very few. You can experience engine failure if you don’t heed two-stroke maintenance and fueling procedures.

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2. Design and Build. Hallmark: Maximum difficulty and long hours. Maintenance: It depends!

This is the ultimate creative effort. It is not for the faint of heart. How will you know? Do you love tinkering? Are you the person who modifies things so they will work? If you’re an engineer, know your way around aerospace design, and don’t mind going through experimentation, this may be a fantastic undertaking. After all, we wouldn’t have all these airplanes flying around now without brave designers and builders. You don’t have to be an engineer, but research what you are getting into by talking to others who have gone this route.

Count on long design hours and many experiments. You’ll need patience, perseverance, and vision. Good software programs, like SOLIDWORKS from EAA, and a well-equipped workshop will also help.

Builder/flyer type: Builder.

Pitfalls: If you are not a safety-oriented, detailed, and patient builder, a serious testing accident could ensue due to design problems or oversights.

3. Plansbuilt Aircraft. Hallmark: Long hours with setbacks requiring creativity and patience. Maintenance: Depends on how old or how new your parts are.

For fun and a sense of accomplishment, you can’t beat building an aircraft from plans. Because complexity is all over the map, I can’t tell you how long it will take, but do your research and talk to others who have built what you have your eyes on. From thoroughly modern and well-documented designs to arcane free-build plans for older designs like the Ramsey Flying Bathtub, there is something for everyone.

Builder/flyer type: Builder.

Pitfalls: Running out of patience or running into a problem you can’t solve. The project languishes.

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4. Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB). Hallmark: Straightforward. Maintenance: Easy, especially if you are using a new engine with the kit.

E-ABs, in my opinion, are a terrific solution for someone who is both a builder and a flyer. Most E-ABs don’t take a long time to put together as long as you are persistent and steady in your build. Modern-day kits are much easier to build than years ago and require a surprisingly little amount of problem-solving or specialty tools.

Builder/flyer type: Builder-flyer.

Pitfalls: Letting longer projects come to a halt because of a problem. It’s hard to get started again.

There is a class of E-ABs with quick-build options. If you are more a flyer than a builder, this is the way to go. Drawback? Money. Many factories now also offer a builder-assist program. For people who want to get the kit done as fast as possible with maximum quality, this is a great option. Once again, all it takes is a little more money.

5. Restorations. Hallmark: Booby traps, but it depends on the model. Maintenance: Straightforward, but can be high and time-consuming.

Complexity on a restoration can be minimal if you’re just doing a re-covering to serious if you’re doing a frame-up restoration. The difficulties can be overwhelming if parts are not available and you have to have them fabricated or make them yourself. Older antique aircraft can have many different versions of the plans, like the Waco (the UPF-7 in particular). It can be difficult to discover what version you are dealing with. You may need to develop some historical knowledge or find a friend or museum curator who knows what goes where if you want authenticity.

Builder/flyer type: More builder than flyer. But once you get flying, there’s a terrific “wow” factor.

Pitfalls: Surprises and cost overruns can relegate the project to the corner of the hangar or the classifieds page.

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6. Purchase. Hallmark: Instant flight! Maintenance: Straightforward but can be costly.

If you are clearly a flyer and not a builder, my advice is to not build your own aircraft. Include secondhand light-sport aircraft and E-AB aircraft in your acquisition search. No matter what you fall in love with, get a thorough prebuy inspection, especially if you have your heart set on an experimental or antique aircraft. They are generally well built, but you do not want surprises.

Builder/flyer type: Pure flyer.

Pitfalls: There are surprises if you don’t do your research and do not get a thorough prebuy inspection. Maintenance can cost more because you’re not going to be interested in doing it yourself.

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I’m not saying that you have to love every task you do in your airplane construction. There will be setbacks, difficulties, confusion, self-doubt, and times when you need expert help. However, as you go about the week-to-week work, you will revel in the happiness and the anticipation that the endeavor delivers nearly all of the time.

If you’ve done the analysis and realize that you’re more a flyer than a builder, there are big advantages to choosing an airplane to purchase over building one.

Some advice for the builders: Unless you’re designing your own aircraft, heed the following tips to avoid difficulty and lessen technical troubles.

  • Fly what you want to build and visit the factory. Read everything you can.
  • Talk to and visit other builders in various stages of construction.
  • Pick an aircraft with a good fan base (Van’s comes to mind) with enough flying models to assess the safety and quality record.
  • Choose a kit with good documentation and a technical help line.

Yes, these tips eliminate a lot of models. If you leave the beaten path, that’s okay, just realize that you have introduced more complexity.

We will always find a way to get in the air.

Psychology: We Always Find a Way

We can study technical topics all day long but not enjoy them. Yes, there actually are people who like calculus. I mean who like doing calculus. If you do, that’s great. I hope you can take the time to explain to the rest of us what it really does (something about change and time).

Some of us have figured all of this out already — we know exactly what we love, and we know we are good at it. A perfect combination. But there is a swath of individuals (perhaps younger and less experienced) who aren’t sure what they want or if they are going to be good at it.

This is where psychology comes in. “Know thyself,” a 10th century Greek aphorism, holds true now. If we understand our own values, then we understand what we want to do with our time. We are able to prioritize our activities based on what we’re good at and what we enjoy and will be much safer builders. We’ll get projects done faster, and projects are less likely to languish.

When your heart and soul are not involved in the building of an airplane, you can easily miss details and extra steps. You might settle for good enough or you might just give up.

“What’s Involved in Homebuilding” is one of the most popular talks in the EAA SportAir Workshops lineup, and for good reason. Those of us who want to be builders want to find out if it’s something we can do. Of course, anyone can build an airplane. The question here, and the importance of psychology, is should we?

Ideally, we want to hit that magical place where we lose track of time and feel regenerated every time we go out to the garage or the hangar to work on our aircraft.

QUIZ: Are You a Builder or a Flyer?

I always read the instruction manual for anything I buy.

A) Yes

B) No

C) I usually lose it.

Whenever I design or build something, I organize my shop first to get ready.

A) Yes

B) No

C) What shop?

When I am faced with a thorny problem, I:

A) Take a break from it, relax, and then re-attack it.

B) Call a friend to come figure it out.

C) Shove it in a corner and ignore it as long as I can.

I am okay working by myself.

A) Yes. In fact, I prefer it.

B) Only if I have to.

C) I’d much rather have a lot of friends help.

If I suddenly find I have four hours of free time, I want to:

A) Go into the workshop.

B) Mow the lawn.

C) Go flying.

If I really want to purchase a new tool, I:

A) Find an excuse, any excuse, to get it.

B) I ask my significant other if it is okay.

C) I look at my budget.

What Your Answers Mean:

Give yourself 3 points for every A answer.

Give yourself 2 points for every B answer.

Give yourself 1 point for every C answer.

If you scored 15 or more, you are passionate about building and have a vision for getting in the air. Your project is not likely to sit idle.

If you scored between 10 and 14, building an airplane might not be your first passion, but you live in a balanced area where you can build and fly. Be careful that your project does not sit for long or you might lose interest.

If you scored less than 10, let’s forget building an airplane and go flying right now.

We’re having some fun here, but it’s worth thinking about the things you really want in life and the things you love most. If you are passionate about building, then you are likely to pay a lot of attention to detail and quality, and you’ll take the time to get things right. This will make for a safer airplane.

Can you be both a builder and a flyer? Absolutely, yes! Remember that one of the many reasons for building an aircraft is to get in the air.

Either way, we will find a way.

Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at DreamTakeFlight.com.


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