Preparing for Your First Flight
The paperwork, the plane, and the pilot must come together for success.
As construction of your project nears its end and you start thinking seriously about your first flight, there are some important things to consider. Paperwork comes first. You just can't do anything that involves a government approval without the proper paperwork. Next, the plane must be truly ready to fly. The question is, what does that really mean? Lastly, but certainly not least, you, the pilot, must be ready to fly your new plane safely. Since this is the least regulated aspect of first flight preparation, it sometimes also gets the least amount of consideration—but in many ways, it is the most important.
You Are Not Alone
The good thing about being an Experimental aircraft builder and pilot today is that there is a lot of help available to make the first-flight process easy and safe. The FAA has some pretty good advisory circulars available online or in print for your reference to explain their processes and suggest ways to do things safely.
As a builder you are likely already familiar with AC43.13-1B, Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices, Aircraft Inspection, Repair & Alterations. This book is the gold standard for how to properly work on an airplane and should have been guiding you throughout the building process. If you have done things grossly out of line with this book, your designated airworthiness representative (DAR) will likely object. By the way, you can find a DAR by calling your local FAA MIDO or FSDO. Your local EAA chapter will also likely have a name or two for your consideration.
An advisory circular more closely aligned with first flight preparation is AC20-27G, Certification and Operation of Amateur-Built Aircraft. It covers such things as designing and building your aircraft, registering it, getting an airworthiness certificate, FAA inspection, flight testing, and operating your aircraft after flight testing. If you built a kit that was not on the FAA-approved list, there is a checklist in Appendix 8 that will help you determine whether or not your project meets the requirements for being majority amateur-built. To summarize, there is a wealth of information in this advisory circular that is very valuable to any Experimental amateur builder.
Another good, if rather long, advisory circular is AC90-89B, the Amateur-Built Aircraft and Ultralight Flight Test Handbook. As the introduction says, "This AC attempts to make you aware that test flying an aircraft is a critical undertaking, which you should approach with thorough planning, skill, and common sense." This is your guide to what to do during your Phase I flight test period. It also looks at fuel system testing and flight testing after a major modification. Fuel system testing in particular has become a real hot-button issue with both the EAA and the FAA. You should expect your DAR to insist on a fuel system test prior to issuing an airworthiness certificate.
A more recent addition to the list of must-read FAA advisory circulars is AC90-116 Additional Pilot Program for Phase I Flight Test. This circular tells you how to take advantage of a qualified, additional pilot during your first flight and flight testing. The EAA and a number of Experimental type clubs worked very hard with the FAA to get them to allow this. It can be a great safety enhancement to those pilot/builders who are a bit rusty or simply lack time in make and model. There are lots of qualifications that go with this program, and it is entirely optional, but it is an option worth exploring. If you are at all interested, be sure to talk to your EAA flight advisor about it.
In addition to these important publications available online or in print from the FAA, EAA technical counselors and flight advisors can provide in-person assistance, both during construction and the flight planning stages. Talk to your local EAA chapter or the EAA office in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the name of a technical counselor or flight advisor in your area. Also, don't forget the support that may be available from the type club or online forum dedicated to your particular make and model of airplane. These groups are a very valuable resource that usually requires nothing more than joining and answering a few questions. Even though there can sometimes be some dubious advice coming from these forums, they can still be great sources of hard-earned knowledge from those who have gone before you.
The first question your DAR is likely to ask you when you call to make an appointment is, "Do you have your permanent registration?" If your answer to this isn't yes, you need to get busy applying for your registration. Your application for registration, Form 8050-1 is not available online. You must get an original form from your local FSDO or by mail from the FAA Aircraft Registration Branch. This form should be submitted two to four months before you want to have the permanent registration in hand. Along with this you will probably want to select your N-number, which you can do online through the FAA web site. There is a $10 fee for reserving an N-number, and you will have to pay an additional $10 fee if you hold it without using it for more than one year. The registration fee is $5, plus another $10 if you request a special (reserved) N-number.
Before you apply for your registration you will need to get an Aircraft Bill of Sale, Form 8050-2, from your kit manufacturer or from whomever you purchased your kit. If you did not build from a kit this is not required. The seller will cross out the word "aircraft" and write in "kit." If you have a registration number, you can include that, but it is not required for a kit. Be sure to allow time for all of this.
The next form you will encounter is the Affidavit of Ownership for Amateur-Built and Other Non-Type-Certificated Aircraft, Form 8050-88. This is where you certify that you are the owner of the assembly of parts that is about to be issued an airworthiness certificate, and that you did the majority of the work putting them together. This form is available online, but it has to be notarized.
The final form for you to complete is the Application for U.S. Airworthiness Certificate, Form 8130-6, which is also available online. Be sure to talk to your DAR about how to properly complete this form. There are detailed instructions in FAA Order 8130.2H, Chapter 8, but a few minutes of talking will save a lot of time trying to figure all of that out on your own.
You will also need to present your weight and balance calculations to the DAR when the plane is inspected. You will, of course, need to determine the actual empty weight and center of gravity to do this, and not use a sample calculation from the manufacturer. Don't forget that if you wish to remain Light Sport compliant, you are limited to a gross weight of 1320 pounds unless float equipped. If you ever present paperwork to the FAA with a higher gross weight, you are forever barred from regaining Light Sport eligibility for that plane.
In addition to the required FAA paperwork, you should have some logbooks. The first is a builder's log. It details the building process and should include lots of photos, at least a few of which include you. In addition to building progress, this is a good place to note EAA technical counselor visits and your fuel system test. Your builder's log will be very important to prove to your DAR that you actually built your airplane. Similarly, the local FSDO will want to see this when they issue your repairman's certificate.
You will also need logbooks for your aircraft, engine, and propeller. The propeller often comes with a logbook as part of the owner's manual. You will need to buy the other logbooks from your favorite aviation vendor. Your DAR will want to make some entries in your aircraft logbook when he or she issues your airworthiness certificate. In addition, you want to log your initial condition inspection, first flight, and if appropriate, your pitot/static and transponder checks. Your engine logbook should have the date of your first engine start and your first flight. Your aircraft logbook will also be where you note the completion of your Phase I flight test and yearly condition inspections.
The assembly instructions for your kit may include a final inspection checklist to be completed upon finishing your plane. If not, a condition inspection checklist is a reasonable substitute. If none is available for your airplane, 14 CFR 43, Appendix D gives you the framework for a condition inspection. You can also check the October and November 2014 issues of KITPLANESŪ for a pair of articles on condition inspections. However you get there, you need to certify as the builder that your airplane is in a condition for safe operation.
Some big items that you need to check carefully include these important ones: Make sure all flight and engine controls are properly rigged, have the prescribed travel, and work freely. Verify that all instruments, both engine and flight, work correctly and are properly programmed to give accurate readings, including upper and lower limits of operation. Be sure that the required passenger warning sticker and an EXPERIMENTAL decal are installed and readily visible to any passenger. Place your N-number on the aircraft in 3-inch tall numbers and letters in the proper place, unless your cruise speed exceeds 180 knots, in which case you will need 12-inch numbers and letters. For a more detailed description of how and where to place your N-number see AC45-2E. Have a metal data plate installed showing the name of the builder, the model designation, and serial number as it appears on your Form 8050-88.
In addition to your final construction inspection, have someone familiar with your type of airplane do their own inspection. Some people like to turn this into something of a party, inviting several people to find anything wrong with the plane they can. That is certainly not a requirement, but it is surely a good idea to have another set of eyes check your work. It is way too easy to miss something after years of working on a plane. In any case, don't get defensive. Everyone has missed something, even after they think their plane is perfect.
If you haven't already done so, do a fuel system test in accordance with AC90-89B and note it in your builder's log. Your DAR will most certainly ask for this. Then, when you are sure everything is 100% ready to go, start your engine, always being aware of all necessary safety precautions. Your DAR must see your engine run before issuing your airworthiness certificate, so it is a good idea to be sure there no problems in that regard. You should do a full-power run-up before your first flight if at all possible. Be careful not to overheat your new engine with too much ground running.
High-speed taxi testing should not be done until after your airworthiness certificate has been issued, because way too many high-speed taxi tests turn into unexpected flight. Even if they don't, high-speed taxi testing carries risks, among them running out of runway while still taxiing at a high speed. Low-speed taxi testing should be kept to a minimum to avoid engine break-in problems. If your plane is properly assembled and thoroughly checked, there should be no reason for a bunch of taxi testing at any speed.
The most important part in any airplane preparing for its first flight is the nut holding the stick—that would be you! Actually, you may have already decided to use an experienced test pilot. If so, good for you. Unless you are very familiar and current with the particular make and model of airplane to be tested, there is probably a better-qualified person than you to make the first flight. That said, most builders want to be the first person to fly the plane they built. If so, you need to prepare yourself for the task with as much attention to detail as you gave to your plane. Do you have the proper endorsements and currency? Have you had enough recent transition training? Have you met the minimum requirements for coverage set out by your insurance company? If you are not answering yes to all of these questions, you need to be thinking about employing a competent test pilot, or at the very least to be accompanied by a qualified pilot as outlined in AC90-116. The first flight is probably the riskiest flight you will ever make in your plane. The pilot-in-command, whoever that may be, needs to be up to the task. Be honest with yourself if that isn't you.
As you are nearing completion of your project, look for opportunities to log some hours in planes similar to yours. A fellow builder or someone in your EAA chapter may be willing to let you fly with them and get some experience. Don't miss the opportunity to log hours whenever you can. Most insurance companies want to see at least 10 hours in make and model before they will extend you coverage, especially for your first flight. Plan ahead to get those hours. You may also have an instructor near you with a LODA (letter of deviation authority) allowing them to charge you for flying their Experimental airplane while they instruct you. It is not easy to get a LODA, so there are not nearly as many instructors with them as there should be, but they are out there if you seek them out. Check with your kit manufacturer or your type club forum for more information on this option. In any case, your first flight is not the time to knock the cobwebs off your flying skills. Prepare yourself as you have your plane.
The First Flight
When your paperwork is complete, your plane is ready, and you are ready, it is time to get serious about planning your first flight. You will want to idealize the conditions. This means really getting to know the airport and its surroundings. Where are you going to go if something goes wrong? Next, wait for good VFR weather with little or no wind and a good ceiling and visibility. Minimize spectators. More people make more pressure to fly whether conditions are ideal or not. Make contingency plans for each stage of the flight. Pick your emergency landing spots. There is no time to sort this out in the air if something goes wrong.
Lastly, think about using a chase plane, or not. There are pros and cons. I've never used one despite having offers on all three first flights, but there are also good arguments to be made for one. It adds a new level of risk if your chase pilot is not very experienced in formation flying and you are not well-briefed on how to work with him or her.
Look to your operating limitations for where you can go during your first flight and during Phase I flight testing. You should never deviate from your operating limitations except in case of emergency. Ask an EAA flight advisor for help to plan your first flight. Make a good plan and then follow the plan. That is the best way to make sure your first flight isn't also your last flight. It happens. Don't let it happen to you. This should be one of the best days of your life. Be sure to take the necessary steps to ensure that it is.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Kitplanes magazine.