Getting Started with Kit Aircraft: Getting Help


If you are considering building a new homebuilt aircraft from a kit — or are thinking of buying someone’s completed homebuilt—this series maybe the most valuable hobby-related information you will ever read. That is because the hobby of building and flying your own full-size aircraft is likely to be a highlight of your life. Thousands of builder/pilots report that the process ranges from exhilarating to daunting, and at times from exciting to discouraging. But those who finish and fly their own aircraft know a satisfaction impossible to describe in words.

The commitment of time, money and work space dictates a dedication seen in few hobbies. Yet if the only goal is ownership of a custom aircraft, building will be drudgery and the chance of completion is reduced. Most homebuilders, however, know before they begin that they like building things, and others discover it early in the process. For most, working with their hands on a fascinating project is at least half of the fun. And some find to their amazement that they like building even more than they like flying. Members of this group find themselves flying the new creation for a while, then selling it to finance another build-it-yourself aircraft.

Our objective in this series, however, is to tackle some of the issues that should be addressed before investing serious time or money. Here is the list of topics:

Getting Help

In the U.S., government approval to build, license and operate a homebuilt airplane is authorized by the Federal Aviation Air Regulation (FAA) under Federal Air Regulation (FAR) Part 21. Most homebuilts are licensed in the Experimental amateur-built category, which permits noncommercial operation similar to that allowed private pilots of factory-built aircraft. That is, homebuilts may be flown on business trips, but they may not be rented, and they may not be flown for hire. An example may clarify. A homebuilt aircraft owner may pay for flight instruction in the aircraft, but if a flight instructor owns a homebuilt, he or she may not charge for instructing in it.

Two advantages result from licensing the homebuilt in the amateur-built category rather than in one of the other Experimental classifications such as Research & Development or Exhibition & Racing.

First, the amateur-built aircraft, properly equipped and licensed, is largely unrestricted in its noncommercial use once the assigned test phase is complete. Contrasting this basically unrestricted use, other Experimental categories are restrictive, in some cases requiring FAA approval for every flight.

Second, the person who is listed as the builder of an amateur-built Experimental will receive a Repairman Certificate for the aircraft when testing is complete if the certificate is requested. The Repairman Certificate is the equivalent of an aircraft mechanic’s license for that one aircraft. There is no test to take, and the certificate is free. With the certificate, the builder may perform the required annual condition inspection and sign the logbook. Without this designation, the homebuilt owner needs to hire a licensed A&P mechanic to conduct the annual inspection.

The major-portion rule (known to homebuilders at the 51% rule), found in FAR Part 21.191(g), says that to be eligible for amateur-built Experimental category, the major portion of the aircraft must have been built by people who were not paid. The official justification for government approval to build and operate non-certified aircraft is education and recreation, and paying someone else to build most of your kit aircraft is seen as contributing little toward your education or recreation.

Amateur help from others in any quantity is permissible even though one person must sign an affidavit as the builder. Aircraft have been built by partners, EAA chapters, school classes, and by neighbors who made the mistake of stepping into the garage to check on progress. None of this nonpaid help counts against the major portion.

Factory and other paid help does count against the magic 51%. Thus if the kit company completes 49% of the building process (as determined by FAA criteria) before packing the parts for shipping, the kit owner cannot hire professional help and still legally register the aircraft as amateur-built. But there’s a major exception:

Certain other professional help that doesn’t count against the 51% is now condoned by the FAA in Advisory Circular (AC) 20-139. Paid help with painting, upholstery and avionics beyond the basic requirements is not counted. Also, in an instructional setting, a paid instructor may demonstrate certain work without jeopardizing the amateur-built status. An example is assembly of the first few wing ribs by a paid instructor who is demonstrating the process. The kit owner is expected to complete the rest of the ribs.

Two programs are an extremely valuable source of help. The EAA Technical Advisor and Flight Advisor programs provide inspections and advice on completing and test-flying the homebuilt. Before 1983, homebuilt aircraft were inspected by the FAA or its representatives at several stages of construction such as prior to covering a wing with sheet metal or fabric. Now the FAA requires a single prior-to-flight official inspection. As a result, many homebuilders invite family, friends and folks in general to inspect the work in progress for errors. Often, casual “inspectors” will find problems overlooked by the primary builders. Some kit builders have organized these informal inspectors as parties complete with food and games. Will the guests spot more wrong than the three cotter pins intentionally left out? (I would document in the builder’s log the intentional discrepancies to assure that they are corrected after the party.)

To learn more about getting help with your homebuilt, visit Kitplanes.