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Homebuilders Workshop: Quickbuilds – the Long but mostly the Short of It

By Ed Wischmeyer

In the beginning of homebuilding were plans. Then came complete plans that included details like the canopy and the cowling. Then along came the first kits, which had all the materials you needed for the plane, a major advancement, even if it was all raw stock. Perhaps it was the Christen Eagle that first had pieces more or less ready to assemble, but the FAA started to get concerned that the builder wasn’t doing enough work.

Then the arguments proliferated, real and specious. One argument that prevailed was that a builder didn’t need to drive all 50,000 rivets for “education and recreation,” the FAA’s accepted motivations for homebuilding. A few hundred would be enough. And a builder shouldn’t have to build all 36 wooden wing ribs… you get the idea.

So the idea of the quick-build kit (also known as jump start and by a hundred other aliases) came into the market. Advantages to the builder could – could – include:

  1. Lots of work already done, reducing build time;
  2. Work done to high standards of workmanship;
  3. Work requiring special tools or jigs was done, such as especially large rivets in wing spars;
  4. Work requiring special skills, such as welding, was done;
  5. Work requiring high precision was done.

Although there would, no surprise, be an extra charge for quick-build components, the time savings could pay for that, especially if the workspace had to be rented. For example, if a quick-build saved you a year of hangar rental, that could offset a bunch of costs.

Van’s Aircraft sets the gold standard for aircraft kits, and their quick-build assemblies are quite good. Skilled builders may find a rivet here and there that needs to be replaced, but the overall quality of the quick builds is certainly better than I can do, for example.

But, buyer beware. Not all vendors will achieve all of the goals listed above. Even the amazing Christen Eagle kits had a flaw in the fiberglass cowling, not enough to affect airworthiness but enough that rework was required if you wanted to win a trophy at Oshkosh. One popular quick-build kit does not align the wing and fuselage joins, so that precision operation is passed on to the builder. If the vendor’s workmanship is bad enough, pieces may need to be reworked or scrapped. In fact, many of the first kits often had parts that were only approximations to the dimensions on the plans.

In choosing a quick-build kit, the same caveats apply as in choosing the airplane in the first place. Many builders will rave about the airplane/kit, not realizing that dysfunctionality has set in and that they are really declaiming the challenges met, the relationship with the factory, stories they have to tell, admiration of their friends and pride of completion. So don’t take builders’ stories at face value.

So here’s how to decide if a particular quick-build kit meets your needs:

  • Look at the factory prototype. If it’s beautifully built, the factory understands craftsmanship. If it’s not, find something else. (A few years ago, there was a homebuilt that was in effect a composite version of a six seat Cessna. The workmanship of the prototype was, to put it mildly, not at the standard required to showcase the merits of the design.)
  • Go find one and go look at it. If you’re like me, get a friend to go with you to compensate for your lack of objectivity on something you’re considering purchasing;
  • Look at the manuals. It’s really hard to write a good manual, and even the best manuals require good reading comprehension and an ability to spot and resolve ambiguities in the English language;
  • Talk to builders whose language hints at objectivity, meaning, they’ll tell you about the problems they encountered and how they solved them. And just because it’s a simple airplane doesn’t mean that it won’t require a bunch of tool and a priori knowledge to put it together properly.
  • Recheck your skill set and support network. You yourself don’t have to know everything, just have access to folks who can fill in your knowledge gaps, even when you don’t know you have those knowledge gaps.

To abuse the FAA’s phrase, when things go well, that’s recreation. And when they don’t, that’s education. A quick-build should increase recreation and eliminate education. Should.


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