Introduction: How NOT to Build an Airplane

About: I've been taking things apart since I was 10. My mother wasn't impressed, even though I told her I knew how to put it back together... I've been making things since I picked up my first soldering iron (By The …

So, you've finally decided to build that dream airplane! Not a model this time, one you can actually sit in and fly! Good for you! You are embarking on a Grand Adventure. Since your goal undoubtedly is to spend enormous amounts of money and make a complete fiasco of it, here are some tips to virtually guarantee your project will be an expensive disaster!

Doing all these things will take persistence, money, dedication, money, patience, money, and hard labor, but at the end, when you sell your unfinished project for pennies on the dollar and become a laughingstock to your friends (the few you have left), it will all be worth it!

Step 1: (Try To) Finish Someone Else's Project

There are lots of people before you who've already met your goal of biting off more than they can chew, and you can often buy their unfinished projects for pennies on the dollar... Or, if you're really lucky, the widow will simply give you the eyesore to get it out of her sight (And her garage)!

This is a great start on your own road to not flying an airplane you haven't built, because somebody else has already made many of the mistakes you were planning on making. You don't have any idea what plans the previous builder had, or if he had any plans at all!

What kind of glue did he use to bond that wood together?? What kind of wood is it, and how long did it sit out in the rain before he used it? Is that landing gear made of tempered aluminum, or soft aluminum that'll collapse at the first opportunity, adding to your joy by breaking the prop and maybe destroying the engine?

Was he building the plane from plans? Does the airplane look like the plans? If you're lucky, the plane only vaguely resembles the blueprints (If any!).

Did he buy factory seconds from China? How would you know? All these unanswered questions just add to the fun!

Step 2: Build in an Inadequate Space

Of course you can build an airplane in a studio apartment, in an open carport, or on your back porch. It won't hurt to get rain on it before it's painted... you can tighten up all those loose glue joints later...

You don't need to set aside a place just for your airplane. You don't need to be that organized. You'll eventually find that expensive part your three-year-old decided was a new toy (maybe it's in the sandbox?), or you can just buy a new one.

Naturally you won't have any room for entertaining, but that's okay, your friends have all abandoned you anyway...

You'll have a blast continually bumping into things and breaking them off, bumping your head, working in blizzards, trying to fit a 24-foot wing into a 20-foot bedroom, aggravating your family by turning your living room into a wood shop, spilling beer on stuff that shouldn't get wet, annoying the neighbors, and for bonus points, building in a space where the doorway is too narrow to get the finished product out!

Step 3: Re-Engineer Things

Those blueprints and kit parts you've got are only a guide, after all, and not meant to be taken as Gospel. Who cares if you use aluminum instead of steel, or vice-versa? Those highly-paid engineers who designed that plane don't know everything, fer Pete's sake.

What's the difference between T3 and T6 aluminum? They both look the same, so they must be the same.

If there's an easier way to do something that deviates from what the kit or blueprints recommend, by all means, do it. Those dumb engineers just didn't think of the easier way.

You managed to weld a Camaro fender onto your Trans-Am, so you know a thing or two about enjuneering. You ain't no dummy.

Step 4: Fix Mistakes With Paint and Bondo

Okay, so you screwed up. Bravo! Now you have a golden opportunity to either fix it or make it worse. Of course the proper thing to do is either:

  1. Pretend it didn't happen and decide it's supposed to be that way.
  2. Fix it with glue and duct tape.
  3. Cover it up with copious quantities of Bondo and primer.

The one thing you do not want to do if you want to succeed at failing is take it apart and re-do it right!

Step 5: Get Nickled and Dimed to Death

By now, You've figured out that This Project Is Going To Cost A Lot Of Money. But, of course, while you've added up all the major parts like the engine, the landing gear, the fuselage, and the wings, you've forgotten about all the wires and cables and nuts and bolts and washers and rivets and tubing and instruments and fuses and grommets and shackles and clevises and ferrules and turnbuckles and safety wire and beer and hoses and zip ties and paint and varnish and nails and screws and glue and gussets and seat cushions and seat belts and buckles and knobs and switches and light bulbs and hinges and control horns and bell-cranks and pulleys and connectors and pedals and brake cylinders and springs, and, and...

You refuse to believe that you cannot build an airplane on the cheap. This project will cost you double (at least) what you first estimated. Your credit card company will be happy to lend you the difference, at a usurious interest rate, of course. You'll learn to love eating Ramen noodles!

Maybe you'll even get evicted because you took out a second mortgage to pay for this, and you (And your airplane project) will end up under a bridge. That'll be almost as exciting as flying!

Step 6: Overestimate Your Skills

You are God's gift to the world of mechanics. You can bolt, weld, rivet, nail and screw around with the best of them, even though you drill triangular holes with a round drill bit, don't even own a torque wrench, and your welds look like porcupines. But, hey, it'll work, 'cause you work on your car all the time and it always runs. Well, almost always. Well, sometimes you have to take the bus. Well, actually, it's been up on blocks since 2009...

No matter what, never, ever, seek the help of someone more skilled than you are (Of course, there's no such person, anyway), because that would be admitting weakness! Besides, these other people might do something horrible, like expect to be paid for their contribution, and that would have to come out of your beer money!

Step 7: Underestimate the Time Involved

You, too can build an airplane in a month! That should be easy; you once built a model airplane in an evening. How much harder could it be?

After six months on your one-month project, you'll realize one day that this could take years! You'll start to lose interest when you see how many little and big parts you still have to make: all that sawing, drilling, gluing, riveting, shaping, filing, grinding, bolting, and screwing is putting a serious crimp in your beer drinking and TV watching activities, and we all know how important those are. And you're still on page three (of 268) of the plans.

By the time you hit the one-year anniversary of your project, and have only a few parts and a massive pile of scrap to show for it, you will want to dig a hole and bury the whole thing! Then you'll stop working on it in disgust, and the cats and mice will move in.

Now the prospect looms of doing what many that came before you have done: Offloading your $10,000 project on some other poor slob for whatever you can get is starting to look really attractive. Sure, I'll buy your unfinished project for $100, cat pee and all!

Congratulations! You are another proud non-owner of an airplane you didn't build yourself! You may now re-join the ranks of the great unwashed non-aviators (and catch up on all those TV shows you missed).

Step 8: Conclusion - Airplane Building the Redneck Way

If, after following all these steps, you do not have a total catastrophe, you still have a home, your car hasn't been repo'd, your dog hasn't run off, your kids are not in jail, and your spouse hasn't left you, you must have not paid attention and done something right!

You've probably figured out by now that I have my tongue firmly in my cheek, but these are common pitfalls when one sets out to build one's own airplane. It is a bigger project than almost anything else you will do in your life, more complex than building a house, and the penalties for screw-ups could be much more severe.

If you want a finished airplane that will fly, that will be your pride and joy, be sure not to do the things in steps 1-7. You will be much happier if you have a realistic understanding of all that's involved. Once you have that understanding, you may decide building an airplane is not for you after all, and that's okay.

The airplane in these photos is still under construction (It was begun several years ago), and while step one was followed, every joint, fastener, and part was carefully inspected and brought up to stringent standards where needed. (By the way, it is being built in a shed; It just needs to be pulled out periodically for photo-ops.) None of the other steps were followed, because we are seeking success. We know it will be a long and difficult road, but very rewarding.

Move It

Participated in the
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Things That Fly Challenge

Participated in the
Things That Fly Challenge