Are Used Homebuilts Safe to Buy?

By:      Norm Goyer

The Falco is a beautiful high performance all-wood aircraft. Wood constructions demands extra care in checking for serious problems before purchasing.

The Falco is a beautiful high performance all-wood aircraft. Wood constructions demands extra care in checking for serious problems before purchasing.

“What goes around comes around.” In the late 1920s, the supply of surplus Curtiss JN-4s and Standards ran out. There were no more bargains, either in airplanes or in the OX-5 engines. Both of these were available for peanuts either salted or plain. In that time span, there were a large number of young people who wanted to fly but could not afford to buy a certified aircraft. Sound familiar? It should. The same scenario is happening right now. Way back then, there were several very popular mechanic’s magazine similar to  Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and Mechanics’ Illustrated and I am sure a dozen more. One of these enterprising magazines ran plans for the Pietenpol Air Camper, four months in a row. The airplane was a very simple, single place, parasol with a Ford Model A engine. The aircraft was designed by BH Pietenpol, specifically for those who had little money, but a keen desire to fly. Why a Model A Ford? Because they were everywhere, garages, junk yards and in farmer’s Ford tractors. The Model A engine was as simple a production engine as could be designed. Often you asked and one was given to  you simply to get the old Ford out of the yard. It was a heavy slug of an engine with a flat head, simple radiator for cooling and a spark advance on the steering wheel. You started it by cranking the early ones. You had to wait a bit for electrical starters but they eventually showed up on the Fords. Almost overnight a brand new industry started up, selling parts to turn the A engine into a more suitable engine for airplanes. Meanwhile after the war, the Pietenpol gang had ditched the Model A engine and started using the Corvair engine for its lighter weight and more power.

Composite aircraft such as the Lancair and Glasair are also difficult to detect problems with construction. Have an expert check airframe carefully before purchase.

Composite aircraft such as the Lancair and Glasair are also difficult to detect problems with construction. Have an expert check airframe carefully before purchase.

About the same amount of time after World War II, came the all wood VP and other simple cheap, easy to build homebuilts and guess what? Most used VW engines. Why? Same reason, they were everywhere and they did work more or less. Again firms rebuilt the engines to be more suitable for aircraft. For instance, an auto engine does not produce any horizontal thrust working on the crankshaft front bearings, their torque is perpendicular to the pulley. But in an airplane the propeller is constantly pulling the flywheel off of its pressed bearings. Lots of VW powered homebuilts using junk yard engines   found out the hard way that stock VW engines did not work in airplanes. As a result  some excellent modified VW engines were redesigned just for aircraft. Many of these are still available. So it is plain to see that when economic times are tough, flying is not going to stop, it is just going to change back to simple aircraft which can be built inexpensively by homebuilders.

Aircraft built using welded steel  or riveted aluminum framed constructions covered with fabric are easy to check for construction errors. But, it is still necessary before purchase.

Aircraft built using welded steel or riveted aluminum framed constructions covered with fabric are easy to check for construction errors. But, it is still necessary before purchase.

Is it safe to purchase a used homebuilt aircraft for use as a personal aircraft for sport flying? Yes, if you follow a few rules; plus use a whole lot of common sense. Knuckle walkers really shouldn’t build their own airplanes. I would never fly in an airplane I built. I am a slob when it comes to building. I love it, but am not good at it. Flying is my thing.

These are my thoughts only, I am not an FAA A & P.  I have no certificates of any kind except flying ones. So, be aware these are some facts I have learned with over 60 years of experience with aircraft.

It is generally thought that an all metal aircraft are safer and easier to evaluate than either a wood or composite aircraft. You can easily see if the correct type of metal was used and the plane was assembled with the correct rivets in the right places, right sizes and material. Modern metal planes like the RV and Murphy’s are pre punched, meaning the aircraft builder has to use the correct materials and procedures. Next safest in my opinion are the tube and fabric aircraft such as a replica Cub or a RANs aircraft. Homebuilts can be covered with doped synthetic fabric or airtight sail cloth such as most ultralights and some homebuilts use. Don’t sign any contracts to purchase until the plane has been inspected by an expert in the construction of that aircraft. Never ever purchase an experimental aircraft because it has a nice finish. A coat of paint can cover a million sins. Paint does not hold the airplane together while flying.

All metal aircraft such as the RVs and Murphy aircraft are easy to check out due to high visibility of construction techniques. Photo shows fuselage of Murphy Moose.

All metal aircraft such as the RVs and Murphy aircraft are easy to check out due to high visibility of construction techniques. Photo shows fuselage of Murphy Moose.

I would never purchase a homebuilt unless it had a current certified engine in it. If I were building it, I would install any engine I wanted to, but buying one used, only trust Continental, Lycoming or the four stroke Rotax engines which are very good engines. These engines again are only as good as the amount of care they have been afforded by their owners.  A large percentage of homebuilt accidents are caused by engine out on takeoff.

If you have high time in aircraft such as a Cessna 172 or a Piper Warrior, I wouldn’t buy an RV-3 and take off for home. NO WAY. The RVs are excellent flying aircraft but they are not Cessna 172 easy. Try to stick to your experience envelope. It is a good idea not to get checked out by the seller of the aircraft. Try to find an expert in that type of aircraft and have him or her check you out. An added plus is that the person will also check the aircraft carefully before flying it.

Yes, buying a used homebuilt is as safe as you make it. Leave nothing to chance. Experiencing an engine out at low altitude in a unfamiliar aircraft is not the start of a fun day.

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