Building an Airplane

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I suppose my story is the same as many others, but I'll recap just in case you haven't seen other builders pages first.

I actually started flying when I was 15 and it was an tough go at $60/hr with an instructor. However, I always managed to scrape the money together and eventually earned my private at age 16. My parents were more worried about me driving the car than flying. I kept on learning and earned my IFR rating a year later. In theory, I could go anywhere now...

Well not when you are renting a Cessna 172 or Cherokee 180 that I could (and did) make better MPH in a car. These poor old mules were the school planes, they were abused daily and it showed. Plus paying a relatively high fee to go "slow" quickly turned into just flying around the area. Well once you've seen the lake from 1000', it doesn't change much. I wanted to go places, and college was not helping the financial situation.

I should mention that I love flying, it's my form of crack. I had to go cold turkey, no flights with friends, no hanging at the airport or I'd be sucked right back in. So I went cold turkey and didn't fly for several years. When I met my wife I did go back to get current so I could take her up for a time, but eventually money and time won again. I vowed not to fly again until I could have my own airplane.

After building a car, and get to that nice stable part of life, my wife recently agreed (she won't say she did) that maybe it was time to think about an airplane. I think she just wants me in the garage for a few years, but let's face it if she's willing to put up with it then I'm not about to turn it down.

I think a quick note is in order before you start reading in earnest. Many of these selections are very preliminary. For example, the engine, it could be 3-4 years before I have to actually pick. Many say just wait until you get to that point. I disagree. I'm not going to be married to an engine or avionics, but I think having a reasonable idea of what you will use is just good planning. It's also a requirement for costing. Without this informed decisions cannot be made.

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The first thing we needed to do was establish the "rules of engagement" for what we wanted out of an airplane. The most important requirement (which actually came later) is that we want a travel plane. This airplane is intended to go places for weekend trips, I do not want something to just "bump around in." So it needs to be comfortable for multi-hour flights, and capable of dealing with weather. Keep this in mind as you are reading.

So we comprised a short list:

  • 200MPH (173KTS) cruise - we want to "get somewhere"
  • 4 seat, reasonably comfortable - we want to take friends and baggage
  • Fully IFR equipped and capable - just because is has the gauges doesn't mean I would
  • Preferably a low wing design - I always preferred the Cherokee over the Cessna
  • The cost can't break the bank

That seems like a short list, but in reality it's about all you need to shave the choices down to a reasonably short list. One last item that was not on the list, but a partial factor was the ability to keep the project close. I don't mind the build center idea, but I want to have the project near me so each night I can do an hour or two of work. From what I read that really helps to get the project moving along. The other thing that helps is not having any kids, which we qualify for. So my weekends are really free for project time.

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Research - The Kits

The above list made short work of the kits available to me. Quite simply the 4 place really took the majority of kits out of the running. Three of my four cars are 2 seat, but having a 4 seater comes in handy. If I was commuting in my plane (I wish) then I could see two seats, but for travel, we seem to always take the comfy 4 seater.

Adding the 200MPH rule didn't change the group much, but it made a couple hard to fit, namely the Foxtrot and RV10. The cost figure actually dropped more out. So below is the short list that I've already narrowed things down to.

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Team Tango's Foxtrot 4

The Foxtrot 4 by Team Tango originally didn't make my list, mainly because I didn't know it existed. Team Tango was actually started in Gainesville, FL in a hanger next to my flight school. They are now located at the Williston, FL airport. Because of my close proximity, they were first on the list to visit. Like idiots we forgot the camera.

My wife and I met with Dennis Funnemark, on August 5, 2006. Because they had just gotten back from Oshkosh and it was Saturday, things were quiet around their hanger. That's not to say it was empty! They had several planes in progress including a Foxtrot. It's at this point that I should mention that they have exactly 2 Foxtrot's in service, the tester and another mainly test plane. The one on the stand was basically the very first plane to go to a customer. I'm not so sure I want to be one of the first people on a new kit.

For such a small operation they really have things together. Team Tango is actually a group of builders that bought the company when it was not getting them their parts like promised. The folks that are running it now seem to have their act together and I have no doubt that once the bugs are worked out, will make an excellent airplane.

Construction - The initial impression of the kit was excellent. They produce a very nice gel coated body and wing from their molds. I can see they mean it in their claim, little to no sanding. They just recently got the wing cores for the Foxtrot made for them by Velocity. They are working on fabricating the molds for the wings right now. They seemed to use a practical approach of using existing parts where they worked, rather than making everything from scratch. It was obvious that the original design was well thought through.

One item that I did like is their closeness to my home. They really thought building at their place was a much better idea for various reasons, but I think being one of the first to build a Foxtrot had a lot to do with it. I could take parts home, work on them, fabricate items, etc. However, making all the dust and attaching the big stuff would be easier at their shop.

The plane - Dennis didn't have a Foxtrot there so I could only take a ride in the 2 place Tango. From the outside the airplane has massive control surfaces. To be honest I thought they may be too big. However, the shape and design is very sleek and traditional. Interior was not spacious, and if you are tall, you're not going to be happy. At current I'm 6ft, 250lbs so this brought back the feeling of a Cessna 152. The Foxtrot should have about 4-6" more headroom and 2" wider. The last item of note, while I never flew a tail dragger, this sure felt like it. The window was small and narrow and seeing in front was tough. On the ramp is about 4 degrees nose high, but I wasn't expecting much better in the air. I did like the doors, they were big and made it pretty easy to get in and out, plus they are great on the taxi roll for the cooling effect.

Demo Ride - Dennis was a great pilot, very smooth. Take off roll was good, it was anything but a standard day, at 95 degrees and high humidity. However, we were off in about 1000ft, and climbing well. We could only get to about 2000ft because of the usual clouds in the summer. The plane was very nimble, like they advertise just think about turning and you are. Those massive control surfaces certainly did their job. We putted around for about 30 min, the performance of the airplane was excellent. Very slow stall speeds, about 70kts clean and 54kts dirty, at the same time we cruised around at 120kts at 2000ft. That's a big plus because the landing was very smooth because we were able to go so slow.

Impression - Well to be honest I'm not sure this is the kit for me. The airplane was a tight squeeze to fit in, and I'm not sure a few inches here and there will make a big difference. The price of the kit was a bit steep for such a small plane. We didn't talk price, but unless they were willing to offer a deal for being nearly #1, I think I'll look at other options. Lastly, I'm worried about how the plane handles. People like to talk "jet fighter like", but I want the cross-county cruiser. I expect to be up around the 10-12,000ft range, but the Tango was so "nimble" I worry about trying to shoot an approach in a mild storm an not be all over the place.

I am keeping the Foxtrot in mind mainly if I want to operate from unimproved runways. Otherwise I don't think it's going to be my first choice.

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Van's RV10

I've read everyone's post about the RV's and I know that everyone loves them. I have not completely written them off, but the RV10 barely makes the 200MPH requirement, and looking at dimensions I'm not sure it will be much more room than the Foxtrot. If that's the case I think the Foxtrot will be faster to build and just because it's literally down the road from my house, I think I would pick them.

Lastly the price is pretty high on the RV10. It may turn out to be a better investment in the long run, but as with most projects like this, you have to build it for the love of building it. If you can sell it later, great, but don't expect to make profit.

So unless the canard planes don't pan out, I'm scratching the RV10 off the list.

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Velocity XL

The Velocity has always been my favorite. It's an airplane ahead of it's time, the form is just awesome. We visited the factory on 21 Aug 2006 and had a great time. This is a picture of the demonstrator we took a flight in.

We met Art and on Monday at their newly renovated office courtesy of the Florida hurricanes a few years ago. It looks like they are getting the operations back to the status quo, which is a good thing.

Factory Tour - We started our tour in the factory and I was very impressed at how organized it was. The folks working on the lay up and fast build parts were friendly and happily explained what they were doing and at what stage I could expect to get a kit in. As we went around it was obvious that this isn't the same plane that they started with. They were constantly working to improve. They are using a fair amount of carbon fiber now in their doors, around the doors, the A pillars and over the front seats. Most of this is for safety and strength because of the gull wing doors.

Another item that I noticed is that even in the chaos of remodeling they still seemed very organized in their tracking of parts and deliveries. That is a key item to me, because there is nothing as frustrating as needing something and having a company lose it. It has nothing to do with technology, just simple good organization and planning skills.

Build Center - After going through the factory we rode over to the Builder's Center, which is a hanger just down the field from the factory. This was a really great experience and I can see the value in working there. I was very impressed to see that 4 builders were all there working on their planes. I think that would be a great motivator, and with having so many projects in different stages it's easy to see where you are going. Plus it helps a lot when you need to see how to get there. They had everything from a fast build kit that just arrived to one that flew for the first time Saturday. They try very hard to keep only active projects because of space.

The plane - I could write for hours about how good it was for my purpose. Keep in mind that I'm looking for a fast comfy cruiser. The XL is quite simply the Cadillac of the sky. First, it's friggin' HUGE! To steal a quote, my wife was in the back and it looked like she was in another zip code back there. My seat was all the way back and she still had more leg room that most typical 4 door sedans. The front was no slouch either, it was lightly against my shoulder, but Velocity had the most brilliant trick. Part of the strake is on the door, they build that into a pocket that is just perfect for your elbow. So I didn't feel smashed in at all. Those are the details that come only after fine tuning the design for years.

Demo Ride - Sam (or it might have been Dan, sorry) was a great pilot, and even better instructor. The first item he showed us was the free castering nose wheel. Because the Velocity uses differential braking you can literally turn the plane in a circle the size of the wing span, that was pretty cool. Take off roll was fast, it was anything but a standard day, at 92 degrees and high humidity. However, we were up in about 1000ft, and climbing well, take off roll was at about 75 kts. Climb out was around 90 kts to 9,000 feet over the ocean. It was at least a very smooth day, but the bumps we did hit the plane just absorbed and moved on, no drama unlike the Tango. The plane responded well, quick and sure, but never twitchy. We turned to a 15 degree bank and just left it there, no control input was required at all it would just stay. I would almost look forward to marker beacon hold patterns.

We did a "stall" which is really a pitch-buck. We never once went negative on the VSI. Even while bucking when you added power we showed 1500 fpm climb! Once the bucking stopped we slowed to about 600 fpm and climbing. So if you had a near stall situation on landing power will just make you climb. It is completely as they indicate in their literature. The next was a low level speed demonstration. We went to about 1000 foot off the coast and about 1000 feet up. We were doing 195 indicated with at least 1/3 - 1/2 the throttle left. I will say that this was a Turbo 550 engine, but still a normal 540 should have no issues posting those numbers. They went with this to hopefully raise the Vne and to get considerably higher cruise height.

Landing was a bit on the fast side for those used to the standard Cessna 172. We did the approach at about 85-90 kias, flare was at about 75-80 and touchdown at about 70-75. All in all, not bad without flaps, and I'd say we comfortably rolled out around 1500 feet. I can definitely see need for transition training to get ready for flying the Velocity. It's a game of trade off.

Impression - I think, without a doubt that this is the kit for me. It's just everything I want in an airplane and so much more. The kit is probably about $8-10k more than the Foxtrot, but I can easily see that value in the Velocity. I'm probably most interested in a XL FG model, but if the right deal for an RG came along I could be persuaded. The Dash-5 option is nice, but not a hugely important part at $3000, for me.

One of the options with a Velocity is that there are several kits out there, and I believe that I could possibly pick one up that someone started but can't finish. This proposition could be very scary but I hope that I can get a good deal, then use some of the savings to get started on the kit in the Build Center. This way I would have Velocity staff that can tell me what is wrong, right or needed to be upgraded.

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Aerocad's Improved Cozy

I must admit that the very first site I read was John Slade's Canard Aviation. I was truly inspired by his build of a Cozy by Nat Puffer. I agree immensely with his idea about possibly doing it all from scratch and if time and money allow, to purchase parts from Aerocad. After reviewing many Cozy builder sites, I wanted to re-evaluate. I am certainly concerned about money, but I plan to sell the Cobra to get a large lump of starting money. My wife is suggesting getting many or most parts preformed. Her concern is that I may lose interest, and that's always a possibility.

So with that I started looking into the Aerocad FG. I like that they made it a bit roomier and some other details. In my opinion, they sort of "refined" the Cozy. I have not asked on the Cozy list if the Aerocad is considered a bastard child or if it's so wildly different that I shouldn't consider it. That will come later once I read some more on the list and get some experience.

A main concern I have is after viewing Greg of Blue Mountain Avionics Cozy. About a third of the way down the page is a picture of Greg and his brother in the plane. That looks like a really snug fit, and I'd estimate that I'm about his size. The other issue is the preliminary weight and balance don't look good when you put the wife, myself and full fuel in the plane.

Given that I think I can swing the Velocity, and it's not much more than the full Aerocad kit price and that it's in Florida, I'll probably go that route.

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Other Kit Options

There were a few others worth mentioning.

  • Glastar - Nice plane, but I really don't like high wing and pricing I could find was pretty expensive. At least I couldn't see spending that much for a design I'm not happy with.
  • Pulsar - This too could be an option. Specs said that the cabin would be smaller than the Foxtrot, but the biggest detractor was speed. I'm not positive if they are designed to handle a 300HP engine.
  • GP-4 - It's two place, but oh so fast! The work involved for a from plans scares me. I know it's going to take years, but I don't want it to take YEARS!
  • Lancair IV - Everything I could ever want, now go see the part about "can't break the bank".

There were a few others along the way, and mainly they were thrown out due to price, speed or high wing. That is certainly not to say they are bad kits, just they didn't meet my requirements.

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Research - The Engine

Engines I'm looking at.

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Traditional Airplane Engines

The old tried and true IO-360 and IO-540. These are work horses from the 1940's. Even while building my engine for the Cobra I often wondered, "isn't there a better way?" The physics involved in what happens to a car motor is just scary when you think about it.

Regardless of physics, my concern is for 5 years down the road when 100LL may very likely be unavailable. The last thing I want is to complete this airplane just to find out that I can't start the engine. I firmly believe that 100LL is going to be gone soon based on my readings. As it is there is only one place that makes the additive, and it's very tree-hugger un-friendly. That's not a good way to start. So I'm adamantly looking at other options.

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Rotary Engines

A Mazda rotary engine of the Wankle design is currently my leading candidate. There are many benefits to this engine and since I live fairly close to Tracy Crook, the apparent master of the rotary engine in an airplane, I figured that it's a reasonable idea.

The assumption right now is based on what I've been reading. If I had to pick right now, I'd probably go for a Mazda 13B turbo charged engine. I should be able to get the HP range I need, I can operate at higher altitudes and get the cruise I'm after. The cost of the engine should be fairly inexpensive, and I can do a lot of that work myself.

The rotary design has very few moving parts and none of the rapid changing directions like a piston engine. So that should translate into good reliability. My other thought is if I use an inexpensive motor, I can keep a spare. At these prices running it for 1000 hours and just replacing it is hardly any cost at all compared to the traditional engine options.

There are many people out there that are running the Mazda engine, so it's nice to know I won't be completely re-inventing the wheel. While I would prefer to go for the Delta Hawk, I'm assuming that I have to make a choice today, and that would be the Mazda I believe.

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Diesel Engines

Delta Hawk Engines is starting to produce an aviation diesel. When I first talked to some people about this, I was convinced that this is the way to go. In fact I'm still pretty convinced of that, however the engines just are not available yet. I love the idea that I can use diesel, bio-diesel and Jet A in a pinch. Let's face it, in the US we will have diesel available until the very last semi-truck stops running.

There are others out there working on diesels, and there certainly are some challenges, but given it's possible efficiency, fuel friendly alternatives this is high on my list. Now if they could just produce a 250-300HP engine, I'd probably be committed to it.

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Innodyn makes a truly awesome option, a turbine! I get giddy just thinking about the idea of having a turbine as an engine. Without a doubt it's the absolute simplest design, which means high reliability, because there just isn't anything to fail on it. The downside is the cost!

However, the turbine is like the diesel in that it has multiple fuel options. I'll be keeping an eye on this, but it's probably not going to be completely practical. Some benefits would be the ability to fly as high as I want. 50,000 with the jets is appealing, but since it's highly unlikely that I'll be pressurized, this isn't much reason to pick it.

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Research - Avionics

Again this is very preliminary, but it's a must for planning purposes.

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Traditional Gauges

We are in the 21st century, I can't remotely come up with a single reason why to put any vacuum powered gauges in an airplane. People whine about failure and redundancy. Have you checked out the cockpit of any recently produced commercial airplane? Go ahead, show me the vacuum attitude indicator, go ahead, I'll wait.

As long as one takes the proper precautions in isolating electrical systems, and using equipment that has battery backup (pretty much they all do) there is no reason to put in antiquated technology. The only caveat to this is possible cost savings. You might get yellow tagged equipment that works fine, for a bargain. My opinion is the instruments really is your "user interface" to the airplane. I'd put up with a slower airplane that is easier to fly. I believe a glass cockpit is easier.

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Blue Mountain Avionics

I think almost every builder out there these days looks very lovingly at the Blue Mountain gear. I certainly was one of them. However, after some research, and cost analysis, I'm not sure they are the best choice.

Their EFIS/One is $15,000! Yikes, I can put a lot of brand new old technology in for that price. The real kicker was when I took the test flight in a Tango equipped with it. The display was nice, but the map kind of sucked. You could only zoom out so far, the engine instruments covered nearly half of the map, and we still had old school backup gauges. This isn't the kind of progress I was hoping for.

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Dynon Avionics

Now enter Dynon, they have much more reasonably priced gear, but it lacks the moving map and some of the auto-pilot options. That was ok with me, I kind of preferred to have a device dedicated to basic instrument display.

My current "design" is 2 of their FlightDEK-D180's for full redundancy, add in a TruTrak auto-pilot interfaced to an AvMap moving map GPS, and by my estimates, I'm at nearly $4000 less than a single EFIS/One, with a lot more bang.

With this setup, I have 2 completely redundant systems for instruments (engine and flight), so I can have one displaying engine at all times, flight instrumentation on the other. The moving map can actually provide enough instrumentation that if both FlightDEK's quit, I'd be able to still get down safely. Couple that with the autopilot and I've got everything an EFIS can offer for less. The only thing that needs to be added is the ILS and Nav/Com, which I would have to do with either system.

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Selection - Kit

Which kit I picked and why.

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Selection - Engine

Which engine I picked and why.

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Selection - Avionics

Which avionics I picked and why.