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'Experimental' aircraft push the envelope

With fewer new planes to buy, more pilots build their own.
The Sportsman, New GlaStar's latest kit airplane, has won over customers with its easy-to-fly handling and ability to fly into remote locations.
The Sportsman, New GlaStar's latest kit airplane, has won over customers with its easy-to-fly handling and ability to fly into remote locations.New Glasair LLC / New GlaStar LLC

We're descending toward the airport at nearly 250 mph, losing almost 2,000 feet per minute. Harry Delong, who sells the two-seat Glasair, is showing me how to fly it, watching as we rapidly climb and descend over the fields surrounding the Stillaguamish River. It feels casual, almost effortless.

The Glasair's abilities would be impressive for any small airplane: It cruises well over 200 mph on a single prop engine. It can easily turn acrobatic twists and climb at nearly a 90-degree angle -- its airframe tested to handle stresses up to 9 G's, more than John Glenn felt on his first ride to space. And you can get one for about $100,000, less than half the cost of planes with similar abilities.

So what's the catch? Pilots who buy it, or any other planes sold by New Glasair and sister company New GlaStar, have to build their aircraft themselves.

These planes are considered "experimental" by the Federal Aviation Administration. The designation was originally intended for aircraft designers who wanted to do research or for home tinkerers who could learn about aerodynamics as they built their own contraptions. Because these aircraft were barred from commercial use, the FAA never felt it needed to put them through its exhaustive process for certifying a new type of plane.

But within the past 15 years, the "experimental" market has begun to accommodate aviators who want a new high-performance aircraft without shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars. All they have to do is get past that one worrying point.

"A lot of people hear the word experimental and that's all they want to hear about it," says Mikael Via, New Glasair's president. "You start looking at what our products do, what they cost versus certified airplanes, it's actually a pretty good value."

Industry slowdown
The growth in experimental airplanes was partly the result of a huge slowdown in the commercial small-aircraft market. By the early 1980s, production of general-aviation airplanes all but ground to a halt as liability concerns grew and new plane development became prohibitively expensive. By 1988, less than 1,000 new single-engine planes were delivered to customers, some 90 percent less than in 1980. Many models stopped production and few new companies wanted to enter the market. The millions of dollars required to win FAA certification made it impossible for most companies to ever envision turning a profit with small planes.

That left would-be aircraft owners with few new planes to buy and an aging fleet of existing ones — most U.S. small aircraft are now at least 25 years old. Then kit companies stepped in.

Previously, pilots who built experimentals had to start with nothing but a set of plans. But companies like Van's Aircraft and Stoddard-Hamilton -- whose founder Tom Hamilton originally developed the Glasair -- sold pilots all the parts they needed to build their own planes. These new designs often used the latest construction technologies and helped pioneer the use of lightweight composite materials in small aircraft frames.

Over the years, these designs -- and the high quality of the planes -- gained favor with many fliers who warmed to the price but worried about safety. And many technological advances from the experimental world found their way into the larger aircraft market.  Two of the most highly respected makers of single-engine aircraft, Cirrus Design and Lancair, both got their start in the mid-1980s developing kits. (Lancair still has a separate company to market theirs. Cirrus decided to build only certified planes.) A modified version of the GlaStar, the OMF Symphony, was certified by German aviation authorities and is sold as a factory-built plane.

Safety data on experimentals show them slowly approaching accident rates equivalent to those for small factory-made planes. And with some 25,000 experimental aircraft in the FAA's registry and another 1,000 added each year, more amateur-built than factory-built airplanes have been registered during each of the past five years, according to Bob Warner, executive vice president of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

"The fact is, there just aren't that many new production airplanes," says Warner. "Part of the price in the production-built airplane is you're paying for a bunch of lawyers and a bunch of insurance."

Steady sales
Enthusiasm for the homebuilts is evident in sales for the Sportsman, New GlaStar's latest aircraft. Its high-wing, tailwheel design can carry four passengers, or two passengers and a week's worth of camping gear, into the backcountry. Design features like vortex generators enhance its comfort -- and safety -- for pilots. Even with the nose pulled sharply up and the airspeed dropping into stall range, the plane's controls still allow you to fly it. (We tried.)

"A lot of folks are looking at it because nothing in the certified arena meets their standards," says Delong, who has a five-month backlog for Sportsman orders. He recently sold three in a single day.

Jon Bonne

Having sold between 100 and 200 kits in the past two years, New Glasair and New GlaStar have come a long way from the industry's garage days. Their production facility is filled with molds for composite fuselages, long racks to help shape wing pieces and a welding shop to construct steel safety cages for their cockpits. (A feature, incidentally, not found on many small planes.) Storerooms are filled with shelf upon shelf of vacuum-packed parts, ready to be shipped to the next eager customer. "Everything's aircraft grade," Delong says, pointing out various pieces that will be turned into new airplanes. "There's nothing out of a hardware store."

But even if customers are less fretful about safety nowadays, the length of the building process still frightens many away.  Like many kit firms, New GlaStar helps guide their customers through the process, offering many components in a partially-finished state. It is also organizing builder workshops that would allow a new owner to complete an airframe in about three weeks time on site at GlaStar's offices. (The engine and instruments take several months longer, but can be done at home.)

All these efforts are meant to balance the FAA rules on amateur-built aircraft, which require the owner to build at least 51 percent of their plane themselves, with a desire to get airborne without spending half a decade in the workshop.

"Most of us are not going to spend three to four years," says Via, who built his own Glasair and flies it on a 950-mile commute from Ventura, Calif., to the Northwest. "But when you whittle it down to three to six months, you start to grow the pie."

Building from scratch
Of course, some pilots are happy to spend three or four years -- or in John Reinhart's case, 5,747 hours across nine years and four months.

While the kit market is gaining appeal, some intrepid hobbyists still believe the only way to truly build your own airplane is to do it from scratch. A handful of firms sell aircraft plans that ensure a builder does all the work, beginning to end. These blueprints, usually sold for a few hundred dollars, specify the materials needed and the necessary steps for construction, but that's it.

Reinhart, a Fort Worth, Texas, resident whose father was one of Delta's earliest pilots in the 1920s, purchased plans for a GP-4, a two-seat plane designed by California firm Osprey Aircraft. Like the Glasair, Osprey's plane can fly well over 1,000 miles at over 225 mph.

Reinhart, who was skilled in woodworking, was attracted to the project by the opportunity to craft a wooden plane himself. After he chatted with Osprey founder George Pereira, he was sold.

"He said, 'If you could build a radio-controlled plane you can probably build this one,'" Reinhart recalls, "so I got the plans and closed in my back porch."

John Reinhart

Beginning with 57 pages of blueprints, he constructed the GP-4's stabilizers and wing spars, all built out of mahogany and covered with a thin fiberglass seal. Nearly a decade later, the FAA -- which must still inspect every experimental craft -- has signed off on his plane and Reinhart's ready to fly.

He's excited to go on his maiden flight, hopefully in a week or two, but he's also humbled by how much effort goes into aircraft design and construction: "This is probably my last airplane. I wouldn’t ever build another airplane."

Reinhart's experience is just what experimental companies hope to do away with. And federal regulations should help them soon as the government nears approval of a new "light sport" category of aircraft. The first new category in decades, light sport planes create a small middle ground between factory-built aircraft and experimentals.

New planes coming
Under the new rules, the FAA would allow firms to develop small, two-seat aircraft, manufacture them and sell them without spending millions on the elaborate certification processes. Instead, standards will be developed by an industry panel coordinated by the American Society for Testing and Materials, much the way standards are set for everything from concrete to surgical materials.

"They're really not letting go of safety," Warner says. "They're letting go of the government being involved in something to the extreme."

The new rules are likely to prompt a new range of small, affordable airplanes to roll off factory lines, giving pilots a chance to buy a ready-to-fly plane for about the price of a kit. In time, the hope is that the same regulatory process could be applied to larger single-engine planes.

If that happens, it would help replace the nation's aging fleet of small planes with newly built ones. And it could give many pilots a chance to fulfill any aviator's dream: owning an aircraft of their own.