Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Plane crazy: These Southwest Floridians build their own

Tom Kracmer 


“This is my little bird,” said Tom Kracmer, beaming like a proud Papa at a sporty-looking two-seat plane nesting in a hangar at Page Field.

“It was in my living room at one time.”

You read that right: Kracmer started building his Van’s RV-7A aircraft from his home. He did it while running his music-supply store and playing the tuba in the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, among other gigs.

With all those demands on his time, the plane took about eight years to complete.

At the recent Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland, it earned “Outstanding Aircraft” honors in the homebuilt division.

Build your own airplane? A real aircraft – one you will fly?

It sounds plain crazy to some folks, but Kracmer and other private pilots are doing just that, in Southwest Florida.

Nationally, more than 33,000 amateur-built aircraft are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. That number has doubled since 1994, although it still represents not quite 10 percent of the U.S. general aviation fleet.

Once built, these planes undergo similar testing and maintenance as any other aircraft. They must be flown by licensed pilots, and can be used only for recreational flying.

Kit makers do offer two-week do-it-yourself-options at factories; however, many plane builders opt to toil and tinker for 1,000 hours or more – often starting in the home garage before the sheer size of the "home-built" requires renting an airport hangar.

Although most build from tried-and-true kits, others choose to build from plans. It’s exacting work, requiring periodic infusions of cash for tools, parts and accessories.

Risks include running short of money, falling ill or suffering some other setback, and failing to finish the plane.

The pilot-builders who stick to it, however, seem to relish the journey. They follow safety measures, and don't allow themselves to be rushed.

“It’s like eating a cow. One hamburger at a time, one small project at a time,” said David Burns of Fort Myers, who’s nearly two years into building a high-wing Glasair Sportsman that he thinks will enhance his aerial photography hobby. He hopes to finish about a year from now.

“I have thousands of projects to do,” Burns said. “I get rewarded every time I complete one.”


David Burns

Why DIY?

Burns noted that, as long as he owns the plane he’s building, he can repair or modify it himself without running afoul of FAA rules. It’s a privilege extended only to the aircraft’s original builder.

Builders give a variety of reasons for taking on such a big task: It’s a personal challenge; a learning opportunity.

But money savings are a big motivator. Homebuilts offer a way to get a new, customized aircraft at roughly the same cost as a 20-year-old, factory-built plane that’s in need of a new engine and avionics upgrades.

A homebuilt plane costs a fraction of a new factory-built, comparable plane.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based national advocacy group for amateur-built aircraft, estimates a homebuilt’s total cost could range from less than $20,000 to more than $100,000, depending on capacity and preferences on engines, electronics and the like.

That doesn’t include tool purchases, parts delivery, and the “sweat equity” the builders provide.

By comparison, a new, factory-built Cessna 172 costs about $370,000.

Cape Coral pilot Mike DeGeorgio estimates he and fellow pilot Art Coll will save “tens of thousands of dollars” by forgoing factory-built planes for a two-seat Zenith CH 750 they began building together in Art’s garage in Cape Coral.

“When we’re done, we’ll know every nut and bolt,” DeGeorgio said.

DeGeorgio added: “You’re going to be flying this thing. You want to know everything is right.”


Bob Willaford

How long does it take?

The EAA estimates the average DIY builder spends 1,000 to 3,000 hours to complete a plane. Some do it in less than a year; for others, it's a decade or more. Everyday life gets in the way.

In about a month, Bob Willaford hopes to start the engine of his Van’s RV-9 for the first time. The retired Cape Coral firefighter began building it more than nine years ago, and estimated he's put in 1,500 hours so far.

"I probably could have done this in a year-and-a-half if I wasn't working two jobs, had kids and stuff," Willaford said.

It's also pay-as-you-go for most plane builders, with occasional delays as they save up for the next big part.

Some take out second mortgages to finance the engines, Willaford said, which alone can cost $10,000 for a rebuilt engine to more than $30,000 for a new engine from the factory.




How safe are these planes?

Statistics show homebuilts have an accident rate that’s higher than that of factory-built aircraft that  typically are used for general aviation; however, the EAA said the difference is  less than one percentage point.

Further, the EAA said the accident rate is dropping as more home-built planes take to the sky each year.

Also, new navigation equipment required to be installed in all aircraft by 2020 is expected to make flying safer.

The National Transportation Safety Board took a close look into amateur-built aircrafts’ accident record most recently in 2011. That year, the NTSB logged 224 accidents involving amateur-built planes, resulting in 54 deaths.

That represented roughly 15 percent of the accidents and 21 percent of general aviation aircraft-related fatalities in 2011.

The NTSB report said pilot error and mechanical failure were key factors, and that structural failures were uncommon. It worked with the EAA on ways to enhance aircraft and pilot safety.

Burns in Fort Myers noted amateur-built aircraft-related deaths are but a fraction of those from motor vehicles. In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded more than 5 million motor vehicle crashes and more than 32,000 deaths.




Few build alone

Building an airplane can mean long hours in a hot garage or hangar.

It could get lonely and frustrating. Fortunately, few take on the task totally solo.

For Burns and many others, Fort Myers’ EAA Chapter 66 is a source of information, advice and camaraderie.

Chapter President Bill Bresnan estimates there are more than 10 planes in various stages of construction by its members.

The chapter also is building a Zodiac plane from plans, which when finished, will be sold to raise funds for other chapter efforts.  Building the plane is intended to be a learning experience, Bresnan said.

As with most long-term and costly projects, building an airplane can cause stress within a builder’s household. Commitment is crucial.

Nancy Burns said she’s “100 percent behind” husband David’s plan.

“He’s semi-retired; I’m still working. This fills the (time) gap,” Nancy said.

She added her husband “meets new people every day” while working on the plane at the Page Field hangar they’re renting.

And, although he’s always been mechanically inclined, this is teaching him new things.

Nancy Burns also attends the EAA meetings and seminars with her husband: “It becomes a family thing.”




That first flight

Do-it-yourself plane builders don’t have grandiose plans for their crafts’ maiden journey.

That’s because after an amateur-built plane passes inspection, the builder must fly between 25-40 hours of solo test flights over specified unpopulated areas, to make sure everything is working properly.

After these test flights, friends and family members can come along. Travel horizons broaden.

DeGeorgio wants to fly to the Bahamas. Coll wants to fly to Chicago to visit his daughter.

David Burns dreams of getting a group of local pilots to fly “out West,” to big, blue skies and towering buttes in Arizona’s Monument Valley, to Leadville Airport in Colorado, North America's highest airport in elevation at 9,927 feet or to Alaska.

“This has been fun,” Burns said of building an airplane.

“And it’s going to be a lot more fun when it’s done."




Why are homebuilt planes called experimental?

Amateur-built aircraft are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration under a broad category called Experimental.

It was created in the early 1950s to differentiate the planes from those general aviation aircraft built in factories and from commercial airliners or military aircraft.

Homebuilt is one of several subcategories under Experimental: Others cover aircraft used for racing and historic planes flown to air shows and exhibitions.

The Experimental Aircraft Association also notes that only a handful of homebuilt airplanes are original designs, The overwhelming majority are built using standardized kits or plans that have been successfully used thousands of time.

The FAA is willing to license an airplane as amateur-built if 51 percent of it, as determined by a task-based checklist, is built by amateurs.

Builders take great care to document the when, where and how of construction through notes and photos.

The airplanes must be inspected by an FAA inspector or an agency designee before an airworthiness certificate is issued.

They also must be test-flown for up to 40 hours before the pilot-builder can take on passengers. 

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