Getting Started with Kit Aircraft: Testing the New Aircraft


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:

Testing the New Aircraft

The decision on who will perform the initial testing has resulted in many lengthy articles and a few books. The FAA’s own publication on the subject is worth obtaining. It is AC 90-89: “Amateur-Built Aircraft & Ultralight Flight Testing Handbook.”

Every aircraft builder who is a competent pilot no doubt wants to make the first flight on the brand new aircraft. But many wisely think long and hard about the potential problems:

  • The builder may have little or no experience in the type of aircraft that is to be tested. The solution is to get sufficient dual instruction in a similar homebuilt, and many factories will assist in facilitating this training. An alternative may be finding an owner of the type who is willing to give a through checkout in the similar homebuilt. A long-time pilot friend attended a type-specific fly-in and was invited by owners to fly homebuilts like she was finishing. Accepting their offers, she accumulated 10 hours of flight time and decided that was enough experience to test her composite kit airplane. And she was right; her first and subsequent test flights were without incident. Whether you and I could find the same opportunity is an open question.
  • The builder is emotionally involved with the new aircraft, which might cloud judgment when it matters. Owners sometimes yield to self-inflicting pressure to continue with test plans where postponement is prudent. Far too many first-flight accidents and incidents have resulted from builder/test pilots disregarding “minor” aircraft problems, gusty wind and other weather conditions, or approaching sunset. One of the biggest mistakes a builder/test pilot can make is to invite family or friends to a first flight. A small test crew with each person assuming assigned duties is proper method. The crew might consist of a crew chief with a handheld radio, a chase car driver, and someone manning safety equipment.
  • Many builders lose pilot proficiency during the building process. Concentrating on renewing flight skills while finishing an aircraft divides attention from two vitally important activities.
  • As a result of these potential problems, many builders swallow their pride and hire or recruit a fully qualified test pilot to complete the first few flights. As noted above, some of the kit companies offer this service for a fee. The test pilot carefully inspects the finished aircraft and directs the test sequence. If the builder is qualified to continue the test program, he or she takes over after the first few flights. Worth noting is that only one person may be aboard the test aircraft unless two pilots will be required to operate it in normal conditions. We know of no homebuilts that require two-pilot operation.
  • Choosing a volunteer test pilot should be done with considerable care. Ideally, the volunteer owns and regularly flies a similar homebuilt.

To read more about testing your new aircraft, head to Kitplanes.