Airplane GEEK

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Outsourcing for the Homebuilder

By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911

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

“How’s your project coming along, Dave?” Roy said as he walked up to Dave at the airpark lunch truck.

“You’re the second person today to ask me that. I know I was gangbusters at the beginning, and bragging about how this was going to be so easy and smooth, but I’m running into problems.”

“I’m surprised, Dave. You’re so industrious.”

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“Well, industrious meaning busy — maybe — but a mechanic I’m not. I’m having a lot of trouble. I really wanted to do everything myself. I thought that it was going to work fine until I started assembling the wings with the special jig. I had to get help on that. Even the A&P on the field was scratching her head.”

“That isn’t simple,” Roy said. “Come on, let’s sit down over there.”

He pointed to the far table with a view of the runway.

“We can watch the new flight students trying to land.”

“I wish I was out there instead of in my garage,” Dave said.

“So, what else went wrong?”

“I thought I’d put in a retro panel — with round gauges — so I borrowed instrument punches and a cutter. I did the layout and tried the cutting, but realized I should have gotten some practice. It was off center. I tried again; it was a little better. The fourth time it turned out okay. In the meantime, I ruined a lot of material.”

Roy shook his head as he looked at Dave’s contorted facial expression.

“Have you thought about outsourcing some of the tougher jobs? For example, wherever you buy your gauges you can ask them to cut your panel. I got a great deal on mine. Just send them the design.”

“I thought that a builder had to do all of the remaining tasks, though — for it to be legal — for it to meet the 51 percent rule?”

“No, there are a lot of things that you can outsource. They include painting, upholstery, avionics, and many other fabrication tasks.”

“I didn’t think you were supposed to get commercial help.”

“Yes, and no. Anything not in the checklist the FAA uses to ascertain how much work the builder will do can be outsourced. But it’s also a fine line. The first thing for you to do is read the advisory circular — AC 20-27G — and then look at the checklist. Depending on what you need help with, and where you plan to get it, talk to the FAA office and ask them to advise you. You will find they are very helpful. I expect there are lots of things you can outsource.”

Dave gave a big sigh of relief and looked at Roy. “Thank you. You made my day.”

* * *

Aircraft kits have come a long way over the last 30 years. When I started my first build, there was no “quick” in the formula. Which was fine with me since I looked forward to building as much as flying.

Since then, nearly every kit manufacturer has come out with a variety of quick-build options for builders. It was a good move because we are all so different in our skill and confidence levels, further complicated by our eagerness to get in the air. We can trade money for time. However, not all of us have that money but we might have the time, so it’s a decision to consider carefully.

Kit manufacturers have also made the building process easier by doing more of the things that might be tough for the inexperienced, such as welding, wiring, laying out rivets, and building wings from scratch. Instructions and plans are better. Factory support is better. Manufacturers know that a tough build can be abandoned in a moment of difficulty, never to be finished. Manufacturers have made their projects easier to complete while still complying with the intent of the 51 percent rule.

Even when your kit is close to this 51 percent line, there are tasks that you can give to someone else to do (outsource). How do you decide if you’re up to the task yourself? This can be a classic “you don’t know what you don’t know” situation. Between a quiz and my thoughts on task difficulty, I will try to make these decisions easier for you. You should also engage a technical counselor.

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Wiring

Why you would. Wiring your aircraft can be a lot of fun. Did you ever assemble anything from Heathkit? These were DIY electrical kits. They taught how to solder and wire boards for everything from radios to oscilloscopes. If you enjoy detail work, you’ll enjoy calculating loads, running wires, and drawing schematics.

Why you wouldn’t. You might not want to wire your aircraft for the same reasons. If you want to get in the air faster and aren’t excited about tiny details, then you might be wise to have your avionics, including the wiring harness, done by someone else.

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Welding

Why you would. Welding is a handy skill to have and can be especially useful on restorations. You’ll also develop an eye for what a good weld looks like and what a poor weld looks like, a handy inspection skill.

Why you wouldn’t. Welding, like other experiential skills, takes practice and equipment. Unless you have the time to spend, it’s not a quickly learned skill. Leave it to the experts.

Painting

Why you would. Why not? It’s part of the build, and it’s fun.

Why you wouldn’t. Like soldering and welding, this is another area where developing a skill base is important. Painting without runs, drips, or dry spots takes practice and high-quality equipment. For a great finish, a paint booth will make a big difference. Not all of us have access to a booth.

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Avionics Installation

Why you would. If you’ve already wired your airplane, then this will be straightforward and fun.

Why you wouldn’t. If you outsourced the wiring, then it’s logical to have someone else cut your panel and make up the custom instrument harness.

Upholstery and Special Systems

You see where I’m going on this — make a list of tasks at the beginning of your project and then figure out what you are good at and what you enjoy. If sewing seat upholstery is not your kind of fun, then outsource it along with specific specialties you’d rather not get involved in.

Thank heavens we are all different.

Know the Regulations

To be eligible for an experimental amateur-built airworthiness certificate, the major portion (51 percent) of the tasks needed to make the aircraft airworthy must be completed by amateurs “solely for their own education or recreation.” When you apply for your airworthiness certificate, the inspector or designated airworthiness representative will check to see if your project is on the approved list. Just because a kit isn’t on the list does not mean it can’t meet the major portion rule. It means that the kit manufacturer has not yet had the FAA evaluate the kit.

If you are building and don’t already have a copy of AC 20-27G, you should download it and read it carefully. It contains everything you need to know. The second resource I recommend is the 51 percent rule question and answer section on the EAA website. It answers the thorniest questions builders have about commercial assistance. Have a meeting early on with your DAR or local FAA office to discuss your build and what items you want to outsource. There is nothing worse than building an aircraft and finding out you can’t get an airworthiness certificate for it.

QUIZ: How Much Should You Outsource?

As you know from the quizzes I’ve provided in the past, they are a mix of fun and realism. Since I’m not a professional psychologist, don’t take them too seriously. Just enjoy what they reveal about your aptitudes and tastes. The idea is to get you thinking about the intersection of your skills with your goals.

What do you want to be doing in aviation three years from now?

  1. Not sure. Whatever happens. I haven’t thought about it.
  2. I have thought about it and have some vague ideas.
  3. I have thought about it and know what I want.
  4. I have thought about it, know what I want, and have put a written schedule together.

Which of the following best describes you?

  1. I have trouble using a screwdriver.
  2. I don’t know a lot about tools, but I’m learning.
  3. I’m handy with tools.
  4. I’m handy with tools, and I enjoy using them.

If I begin a task and run into trouble, I:

  1. Call someone who knows more than I do.
  2. Research the problem and sometimes abandon it.
  3. Usually know how to extricate myself.
  4. Love the challenge and persist until I resolve it.

When I begin a job:

  1. I’m not sure what is going to happen.
  2. I sometimes wish I had given it to someone else to do.
  3. I start with enthusiasm but then sometimes get nervous.
  4. I am confident throughout a task and enjoy it.

If I keep experiencing difficulties, I:

  1. Put the project aside until I feel better about it.
  2. Stop and do something else for a short time, and then return to the problem.
  3. I try different approaches and experiments to solve the problem.
  4. I take a break, do some research, and then return. I may call the experts for advice.

My level of experience in mechanics and building:

  1. I’m starting out and have a lot to learn.
  2. I don’t know a lot, but I’m a fast learner.
  3. I have some experience working on aircraft.
  4. I have experience in all major areas from electrical and fabrication to restoration and painting.

Give yourself 2 points for A answers, 4 points for B answers, 6 points for C answers, and 8 points for D answers. Scoring: This quiz brings together a combination of your goals, skills, persistence, and confidence.

12-23 points. Think through what you really want. If it’s building, then understand that you’ll need to develop skills. You might want to outsource complicated areas as allowed. A quick-build kit (or factory builder assist) will suit you best. Attend some workshops.

24-35 points. Think about your goals and plan on attending workshops before deciding on a project. Consider outsourcing complex areas as allowed. A quick-build kit might be a good choice.

36-43 points. You have an aptitude for building and the confidence to keep going when things get tough. Get additional skills where you think you need them and have fun.

44-48 points. Why are you reading this? You don’t need to outsource anything. Get back to work.

What About Outsourcing on Certified Aircraft?

What if you are restoring a certified aircraft? The good news is that you can do anything you want — upgrades, additions, changes, and experimenting — as long as you follow the FAA’s rules and are either an A&P mechanic yourself or are being supervised by an A&P. The bad news is that if you are not an A&P and can’t find one to work with you, you’ll have a tough time getting things accomplished and obtaining the paperwork necessary to satisfy the FAA. If you find yourself in this situation and love working on restorations, why not attend A&P school?

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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