Sport Expo: Building Airplanes Is Getting Easier

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Last week, just as I was girding to launch into the savage hinterlands of central Florida where Sebring is situated, I got a note from Sebastien Heintz, of Zenith Aircraft. At the Sport Aviation Expo, he wanted me to build a rudder from one of the company’s new match-hole kits because he wished to make a point that might not be obvious. (You can see the video here.)

Match hole broadly refers to the process of pre-drilling aircraft parts before they’re formed and assembled as a means of increasing efficiency and improving quality during assembly. Match hole is not particularly new. I think I first saw it as early as 10 years ago. But what is new—or newer—is that heretofore, the holes were drilled undersize, the idea being that you gained alignment accuracy by enlarging the hole to the final rivet size in situ. Zenith’s new kits have holes drilled to the final size. Doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but when you’re drilling 5000 holes, it adds up.

And it’s a quantum leap over the older kit technology. Back in another age, I built the tail section of a Van’s RV-4. That kit came with raw metal parts, formed skins and drawings. I had to build a semi-elaborate wooden fixture to align the thing. The skeleton had to have some parts made from raw stock, holes drilled and deburred and rivets driven and bucked—few pop rivets. The rivets were countersunk and had to be bucked or squeezed. Bucked riveting is not a difficult skill to learn. Consistent bucked riveting is. It’s almost like an athletic skill that’s perishable. So my vertical fin had a nice, near perfect row or two of flush rivets, with a couple here and there with ugly half moons. I was better at drilling out bad rivets than setting good ones.

With match-hole to final size, the parts are self jigging and the accuracy is astonishing. When we laid the skins on the ribs, I peered down into the holes and saw nothing but air. I assumed this was because the rib was entirely off alignment and I’d need to reach in and fish it straight. Nope. The holes were so perfectly aligned that I couldn’t even see a fingernail clipping worth of metal in the mated part. Stick a Cleco in one end, then the other, and bang the rivets in. It takes more time to describe it than to do it.

The implications are obvious, as Heintz explains in the video. The latest in match-hole technology produces more accurate parts at lower cost and kit build time is reduced by two thirds. Furthermore. using SOLIDWORKS, a CAD-CAM standard, parts can be easily redesigned and, more important, lightened or improved.   

Zenith believes that improved match hole will expand the pool of people who might consider building an airplane when they realize how accessible it can be. But to understand that, you actually have to try it which is why Heintz shrewdly invested in a rudder kit and had me build it. I think he’s right, although the potential market expansion is probably in the margins.

Diehard kit builders sometimes assume that people who buy airplanes are idiots for not building them instead, the argument being that a kit-built airplane is by far the better value. While it certainly can be, a fair reading of the economics paints a different picture because actually building an airplane is an undertaking many people won't consider no matter how easy it is because they're just not tool users. I asked Heintz what the all-in price for the CH750 Super Duty would be. On the low end, he thought $50,000 with a used engine to a high of $80,000. Ignoring the builder’s labor, that’s still a substantial investment. And the time and effort to build it, while dramatically less than it used to be, is still not trivial.

The Super Duty is basically a 100-knot airplane with terrific STOL capability, good payload and cabin volume and built like a truck. The avionics are what you make of them. On the certified side, that much money buys maybe a mid-1970s Cessna 182 of indeterminate provenance that goes a little faster and carries a little more, but is likely to be way more expensive to fly and maintain and has an avionics museum in the panel. You get to be your own A&P with an EAB airplane and if you built it, you can probably fix anything on it. Plus, it’s a new airplane; the Cessna isn’t. On the other hand, the Cessna might be easier to sell than any homebuilt.

The dealmaker for me would be the right airplane. I’m not interested in STOL, but I am interested in a fast two-place, go-places airplane. Think something like the Globe Swift but a little smaller, with retractable gear. And I prefer metal, so a match-hole kit like that powered by Rotax’s new 915 iS would get my attention over anything certified. I suspect that this engine may ignite just such a design, sooner or later. Because of the pricey engine, it would have a price nearer Heintz’s top end (if not above), but also a different slice of the market that’s between the Zenith products and the Lancair-type speed merchants. Even at $100,000, that’s a good value, albeit not a small investment. To be sure, the prolific Van’s line fits this design brief, but without the 915. (Yet.) That’s why Van’s is a market leader. 

Kudos to the Vols

All of these shows run on an army of volunteers and this year, the Sport Aviation Expo had an outstanding corps of them. When I arrived early Wednesday, the press passes weren’t ready, but the nice lady at the booth acted as a strategic corporal and handed me an exhibitor pass so I wasn’t delayed. I love improvisation.

Later in the day, I flagged down volunteer Wendy Amos in a golf cart to locate the press person for the event. Thirty seconds later, I was hooked up. Lots of times, I’ve heard volunteers say “I don’t know” or “you’ll have to check with so-and-so.” One and done is a refreshing change.

This show is famous for occurring during Florida’s worst winter weather. This year, it wasn’t cold, but it got gusty on Thursday. As my camera case was being blown slowly across the ramp, a vendor I was speaking to asked, “Can you believe these guys are flying the Tri-Motor in this?” And “this” was gusting to 27 knots. But they sure enough were still offering rides. I’m not sure I would.

Do we really want people like this in aviation? This is a rhetorical question and don’t ponder it unless you’re prepared for the answer: Yes.

Niloofar Rahmani

I made a point of attending Niloofar Rahmani's forum at the Sport Aviation Expo. You may recall that she's the Afghan Air Force Captain who is also the first woman to earn a pilot certificate in that troubled country. You can hear my interview with her in this podcast. Prior to the forum, I had read about her and viewed a short news piece or two, but these failed to convey an understanding of the all-but-insurmountable barriers she faced to become a pilot. 

What impressed me most about her was her poise. After her talk, while I was waiting around to do the interview, I observed her for half an hour dealing with walk-ups and fielding questions. She conveys confidence, kindness and genuine curiosity--a combination of an officer's military bearing and a diplomat's courtesy.  

Accustomed as we are in this country to the rule of law and constitutionally protected freedoms, it's difficult to parse that Rahmani comes from a society in which, as Mao once said, political power and justice come out of the barrel of a gun. Although educated and trained at great personal expense and seemingly positioned to be a leader in a modernized Afghanistan, the culture is such that she cannot return to live alone as a woman under threat of death. "It just too dangerous for me," she told me. Nearly two decades of blood and treasure invested by the U.S. haven't changed things much. Sadly, her best hopes remains to become a U.S. citizen. Good for us, but a loss for Afghanistan. 

Comments (21)

Wonder if they'll do a match-hole version of the CH650 Zodiac. With the wing spar and flutter fixes, that could be something you could go for, especially with a 915iS on it.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | January 27, 2018 8:57 PM    Report this comment

Easier and faster to build? I'm smelling a LOT of "2 weeks to taxi" programs on the horizon. What will we get when you combine a new generation 912/915 iS, avionics, improved aircraft design, factory build programs and BasicMed? I'm anxious to see!

(Personally, I want a 915 iS powered, 5 seater from Sling.)

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | January 27, 2018 10:05 PM    Report this comment

Paul, interesting but not a new sales approach. Sebastian Heintz believes in his modified process so much he offers you free of charge a rudder match hole kit to demonstrate the full value received which might not otherwise be fully realized had you not built it yourself. The process clearly produces a plane quicker, cheaper, safer with better performance than would otherwise be possible doing it the old fashioned way.

On the other hand, Icon essentially tells you to take a hike and go pound salt. They pump the price of the A5 into the stratosphere without really giving an acceptable answer. Even if they did who cares. Icon ties you up into so much legal bull s--- you need to hire a lawyer just to review all of the documents you have to agree to.

The differences in approach between the two companies is astonishing. It's nothing short of mind blowing. Which sales approach do you think is going to win the day? Which company would you really want to by anything from much less an airplane?

While I do not want to diminish the focal point of your article, the differences in sales approach between Icon an Zenith Aircraft could not be avoided.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | January 28, 2018 6:00 AM    Report this comment

While I do not want to diminish the focal point of your article, the differences in sales approach between Icon an Zenith Aircraft could not be avoided

Maybe, but so what? Selling anything from cars to air conditioners is and always has been done on a spectrum. It's not zero sum. One is not right, the other wrong. The customer buys one or the other or none at all based on his personal predilections and tastes. I suspect the customer interested in an Icon, or a Mooney or a Cirrus is not the same as one interested in a Zenith. The Venn diagram of those buyers intersects by a line width, if that.

In other words, would-be buyers don't just buy an airplane to satisfy the urge to own one, as in any old airplane will do. Tastes and requirements vary.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 28, 2018 6:48 AM    Report this comment

I fully understand and accept your point Paul. However, attitude affects approach and both define the company. I don't care what Icon is selling, I don't want to deal with a company with their attitude. I don't know of an industry where customer support is as important as it is in aviation. In my book your buying customer support first, the airplane second. With Icon your buying a migraine first followed by attitude (here, sign this) before you even fly the damn thing. Zenith's approach overflows with confidence in their product, Icon does the opposite.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | January 28, 2018 7:41 AM    Report this comment

On "Kudos to the volunteers". I agree with you. I am always amazed as to their generosity and good will.
On "Mao once said, political power and justice come out of the barrel of a gun. " Thanks for getting out of the box.
On Niloofar Rahmani, I am glad she is on our side.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 28, 2018 8:58 AM    Report this comment

There's a separate factor in any equation used to determine 'what' to build ... the engine. Over and above the overall airframe design goals and form factor and performance et al, choice of engines always plays an important albeit quiet part in whether an E-AB will be successful, or not, and whether the company selling it is successful, or not. The BD-5 might have done OK had a decent engine had been available for it, back then.

The RV's have been a HUGE success for many reasons ... not the least of which is that Dick decided to use the common low horsepower (and easy to find and maintain) Lycoming engines in most of the designs. Likewise, when he finally decided to launch into the LSA market, he picked the ubiquitous 912uls. Early on, I was smitten by the 912iS and wanted one in the RV-12. I asked him about it; his immediate answer was that the airplane uses the 912uls and that's that. Now, of course, the iS engine has been fitted to the RV-12. As a serious prospect, I flew a RV-12 at SEF several years ago and came close to pulling the trigger. In the end, that it didn't have the 912iS, was a low wing design (apt to burn my bald head) and was too far past $100K made me decide IT wasn't the one ... despite knowing that its handling qualities would be superb. USAF test pilots I know have rated ALL the RV's as a 2 or 3 on the Cooper-Harper handling qualities scale (that's good).

But -- to parrot what YOUR choice in an E-AB would be -- IF I was to decide to build an airplane, it would have to be metal, go fast, go far, carry two plus decent cargo and have the "right" engine. I don't want retractable gear. For me, it'd be either a low compression O-320 Lycoming OR ... maybe ... the 915iS. I am really hoping that someone fits that thing into something that'll be a head turner. With the economy beginning to boom again and BasicMed codified ... who knows ... something like that COULD spark some growth in GA.

MY mission is to go 950nm in one reasonable day with one stop plus reserves. IF I could do that for around the magic six figure number, I might have to clean out my garage. Years ago, I started a Thorp T-18 which used a pseudo matched hole building technique of mirror image fuselage sides. The new laser CNC method would be orders of magnitude better ... as you describe here. If Sebastian fits one to the CH750, I think he'd have a winner on his hands.

Say ... I have the original O-320 low compression engine from my Skyhawk sitting in my hangar. Hmmm ....

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 28, 2018 12:22 PM    Report this comment

Anything on automated aircraft out of SportExpo?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 28, 2018 10:24 PM    Report this comment

In the long term I believe homebuilding is the only way light privately-owned GA can survive in any significant numbers. The existing certified fleet won't last forever, and new certified prices will never come down short of the FAA doing away with Part 21 and Part 43 requirements for non-commercial use.

It would certainly benefit the FAA if that were to be the trend--fewer liability concerns and less need for manpower to support certification efforts would make their job easier. All we'd need is a bit of tweaking to E-AB rules and we'd be set.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 29, 2018 6:49 AM    Report this comment

Speaking of E-AB rules, I'd appreciate a primer on the current interpretation of the "51-percent rule." With "quick-build" kits in abundance, and with manufacturers making statements like "a builder could complete one of these in 300 hours or so," it seems to me that there's gotta be a whole lotta winkin and noddin goin on in this area.

Is the manufacturer really asserting that the TOTAL effort it takes to build one of his birds from raw materials (including the hours contributed by the seller of the kit) includes only 588 man-hours of direct labor? Seriously? Perhaps the fabrication hours contributed by "robots" don't count against the total? Or does "the work" mean something other than man-hours? EAA-ers, please enlighten me. Thanks.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 29, 2018 8:48 AM    Report this comment

"In the long term I believe homebuilding is the only way light privately-owned GA can survive in any significant numbers."

I don't really see that happening. A few times I've looked at home-building, but I simply don't have the room for the construction. I don't really have the time for it either, but I suppose it's something I could make the time for. But there's not much I can do about the physical space needed. It's also much harder to form a partnership to help cut costs when the aircraft doesn't even physically exist yet. And for the type of aircraft I'd want (130kts+, 4-place, 800lbs+ payload), the cost would be more than something I could find on the used market. Sure, it's new vs used, but that doesn't really matter if it's still cost-prohibitive.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 29, 2018 9:31 AM    Report this comment


You make some great points. But a question I have to ask is: Do you want to fly, or do you want to own an aircraft? Without insult to flying clubs (which both of us have managed), the answer often is "in order to be able to fly whenever I want to, I HAVE TO own an aircraft." But what if it were not that way?

Aside from money (a big aside for many of us), there are two BIG impediments to participating in GA:
1. Owning/operating an aircraft
2. Obtaining/maintaining a pilot certificate and medical certification
Technology soon will void both of those requirements. The "Uber model" is coming to GA transportation just as it has to automobile transportation. But Uber longs for the day when it no longer will have any need for human drivers. Extra payload; 24/7 operations; no rider complaints about nasty drivers; extra profit. Technologically, an autonomous airplane is a LOT easier to do successfully, than is an autonomous car.

So again, do you want to fly, or do you want to own an aircraft? You don't need to own a kitchen, in order to eat. Charter customers already know that they don't need to own an aircraft - or to be a pilot - in order to fly whenever/wherever they want to. The automobile industry already is readying for the day when personal car ownership will be the exception rather the the rule.

Robert may be right: the day may come when if you want a personal fly-it-yourself aircraft, the ONLY way to get one will be to build it.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 29, 2018 9:54 AM    Report this comment


The 51% is based on a checklist of tasks listed in AC20-27. It's not about hours--one builder might be able to do in one hour what another builder might take ten hours to do. Examples of the tasks: Fabricate flap spars; Assemble aileron primary structure; Fabricate elevator ribs or cores, etc...

The tasks are very heavily biased towards fabrication/assembly of primary structure. Systems and electrical get very little credit. You get as much credit for installing your trim tabs as you do for wiring the entire airplane.

Many kits apparently get pretty close to the limits based on this checklist; it's very common to see complex parts (and welded parts, for otherwise non-welded airframes) provided complete. Fabrication tasks are typically the very simple parts.

My personal theory is that the FAA is being easier to work with on stuff like this, because in the end they figure it will generally result in higher-quality aircraft at the end, and that means fewer accidents. And as much as the apparent disregard of the systems aspect bugs me (I'm an aircraft systems engineer), I think they're deliberately keeping it a small part of the total so that people who feel out of their depth can seek professional help with that part. Personally, I'd rather hire out the structure work and do the systems (which is infinitely more interesting and fun), but I'm not the FAA.

Gary: There are plenty of builder partnerships out there. It just requires finding multiple people who want to build, and can agree on what they want out of the deal.

Also, while the supply of used airplanes may still be plentiful NOW, that's not going to be the case forever. As time goes on, more and more of them are going to be parked for good due to ever-increasing maintenance costs, fatigue, etc. That's what I was talking about with "long term".

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 29, 2018 11:05 AM    Report this comment

You make a good point about the apparent disparity on the assembly rules, but there may be another reason why the FAA has avoided getting too deep into the systems issue. While most all EABs have clearly defined airframe parts (i.e. fuselage, wings, flaps etc.) the internal "systems" can vary tremendously. One person's rag-wing may not even have an electrical system, while the next RV could have double-redundant G3X nav systems and three-axis autopilot. Sorting out how to define 51% of that is probably quicksand the FAA chooses to avoid. Personally, I am happy they have stayed out of it.

CNC machining is to the metal airplane builders what vacuum molded parts are to the composite crowd. Before long, any kit producer will have to adopt the technology or lose most prospective customers. Time to build is the single largest impediment to building your own plane.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 29, 2018 11:42 AM    Report this comment

"There are plenty of builder partnerships out there. It just requires finding multiple people who want to build, and can agree on what they want out of the deal."

It's not impossible, just harder to do than forming a partnership around a plane that does physically exist.

"But a question I have to ask is: Do you want to fly, or do you want to own an aircraft? "

At the moment, I just want to fly. I was previously in an aircraft partnership but had to sell my share for various reasons. It just happened that my need for owning also went away around the same time, so I have no regrets. My club membership meets my needs at the moment. I would like to own again at some point in the future, but it will be to own some sort of 4-place retract (sure, there's no rational need for a retract when there are fixed-gear models faster than many reatracts, but airplane ownership often isn't about a rational need). And when that time comes, I would like to have the plane now, not in 10 or so years if/when I complete a home-built. As attractive as it is (I am actually interested in home-builts), I just don't think they are in my future. And I'm certain others feel the same way. It is A future for GA, but I don't see it as THE future for GA (at least in terms of ownership).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 29, 2018 3:11 PM    Report this comment

'The "Uber model" is coming to GA transportation just as it has to automobile transportation. But Uber longs for the day when it no longer will have any need for human drivers.'

Pine away, Uber. Yars, will you at least acknowledge this isn't a type of zero-sum game? Cars park themselves now, have sensors and cameras and amazing cabin tech and many will eventually be autonomous, (or is that semi-auto...?) ;-) ...but I still enjoy and get some genuine love from others when I drive my 4 speed manual, two gauge dash, rag '66 Beetle. I also get 'you pausing to piss me off?' occasionally, but it's still mostly good.

This is how I look at the home-building segment of GA. Where will all of the pilots go who still want to be involved hands-on with an aircraft and many things mechanical in aviation? As a grey head I'm aware we need younger pilots to keep it going, but until I see that mechanical group consciousness evaporate, I think home-building will always have a solid place at the GA table.

But you're spot on about the 51% rule appearing to slope steeply away from its 1% angle. When I built, every hole was measured twice, pilot holed then final holed set, then deburred, cleaned and riveted. For the entire plane. Looking at the video of Paul's rudder, and the calm, sweat-free state of our beloved blogger, the new process will cut huge amounts of time and effort in the build process. Don't know how it will change much as far as interest though, if at all.

At times the project for this ne'er-do-well was daunting. Flying is wonderful, but not always, just like home-building. I enjoy the perfecting, adjusting, piddling around with the plane about as much as the flying, to be honest. It's a lifestyle, a passion of involvement and accomplishment. Probably explains hanging on to the old ragtop car, too.

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 29, 2018 4:57 PM    Report this comment


I enjoy flying as much as the next guy. I welcome the day when non-pilots can participate in GA. On the highways, the count of absolute morons increases daily, so autonomous cars can't arrive too soon as far as I'm concerned. That won't stop those who love driving from doing so, just as the coming wave of autonomous planes won't stop pilots from hand-flying their birds.

To each his/her own. I hope. ;-)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 29, 2018 6:38 PM    Report this comment

YARS, you've made my day. How can you be so wrong? Autonomous vehicles? Nonsense!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 29, 2018 7:33 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli. Really good videos. Brings Sebring to the gallery. Thanks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 29, 2018 10:44 PM    Report this comment

Kudos to Paul for rejuvinating his never ending love affair with the mighthy keyboard.

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 29, 2018 11:29 PM    Report this comment


I downloaded the AC. Appendix 8 was a revellation. Primative, to say the least. The very embodiment of winking and nodding. Thanks for the pointer.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 30, 2018 5:29 AM    Report this comment

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