Spam Can or Used Kit?

Pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar, a used Experimental might be faster and cheaper than a certified airplane. But there are good reasons not to buy one.

Go on, admit it. After the umpteenth time youve called the company that now owns the company that built your airplane three decades ago for some obscure part and were greeted with maniacal laughter from the other end of the line, you got to wondering: Isnt there something better? And that got you pondering those elaborate and reportedly fast Experimental aircraft youve seen dotting the airport.

The hype is compelling. Youve heard the guy with the Lancair say he goes 200 knots on a fuel flow that barely gets your Baron to run-up speed. Plus, because Experimentals operate on a different set of airworthiness rules, he owns a Repairman Certificate that allows him to do all the maintenance and even sign off the annual inspections (called condition inspections).

Finally, by dint of being in the Experimental category, he can use all sorts of non-approved instruments and avionics-often that are many times cheaper than equivalent approved stuff-that you’ll hardly ever be able to put into your production machine. From a distance, jumping onto the Experimental bandwagon in place of buying a certified airplane is awfully compelling. For not a whole pile of money, you could have a distinctive airplane thats usually sleeker than your typical spam can, probably quicker and that can be outfitted with a range of high-tech gizmos that will likely never show up on a production airplane. (At least not at prices that wont burn your hair.) The question then becomes: Should you make the leap?

Why Do This?
What every pilot should understand about Experimental/amateur-built aircraft is that the category was designed to allow freedom of choice for those with a serious desire to build and tinker. It has long been assumed that the builder should have the ultimate responsibility for deciding whats appropriate for the airplane in terms of construction quality, systems design, documentation and so on. Its right there in the name: Experimental. Stick it on, go fly, see if it works.

In truth, the industry has matured a long way since the day of scratch-built aircraft with Radio Shack wiring and a converted tractor engine for propulsion. The current kits are sophisticated and, for the most part, we’ll proven.

But excepting the built-for-hire aircraft, each homebuilt is just that: built at home. There are inevitable variations in build quality, attention to detail and the builders ability to follow the plans. Some builders think theyre smarter than the factory and make unapproved (by the kit maker) or undocumented changes as they go. Some of these are fine, some could be downright dangerous. The problem for you, dear buyer, is that you wont be able to tell one from the other unless you know the design extremely well. About as we’ll as someone who has built one, in fact.

If you get your list down to a few designs that seem to work into your flying requirements, you owe it to yourself to visit the factory and see as many examples as you can. There is simply no such thing as assuming one Lancair is built the same as the next. The flexibility in the rules that allow for some real innovation also open the door to surprises. Expect to see a far greater degree of variability and personalization in Experimentals than in production aircraft.

Handling Qualities
Heres the area in which you’ll find a great divergence from production aircraft, and, next to the build quality issues, is the one thats most likely to catch you unawares. Put simply, Experimentals don’t have to adhere to black-and-white handling standards. They can have any stall speed the designer wants. They can have any combination of light and heavy controls. They can have little longitudinal stability and narrow CG ranges. They can and they do.

This situation comes from the history of the genre, where designers strove to have fun flying airplanes that sacrificed stability for light controls. Indeed, some early Experimentals could be described as actually ill handling, either because the designers went too far to get light controls or because they were inept. (Hey, you think Cessna got it right every time?)

The more recent designs tend to be better. we’ll also take this opportunity to single out Vans Aircraft as taking the high ground on handling qualities. Dick Van Grunsvens designs are notable in maintaining excellent control harmony, stall and spin characteristics and reasonable wing loading so that the stall speeds are reasonably low. This, in addition to being made of familiar aluminum, could we’ll be the reason the RV series is dominant.

As a practical matter, however, the typical Experimentals flying qualities will be quite a bit different than what youre used to and any given airplanes stall and spin reactions may be far more vigorous than youd expect. On top of that, most homebuilts lack a true stall-warning system-although angle-of-attack indicators are becoming more popular-and many will give you little or no aerodynamic warning that the wing is about to call it quits.

There’s really no secret to how the kit designers get their impressive speeds. Its a combination of good surface finish–particularly for the composite airplanes, although a well-built RV is a smooth thing of beauty–and comparatively small size. What that suggests is a small wing and tidy cabin dimensions. But more than that, its horsepower.

Take, for example, the Vans RV-7A, which can be fitted with as much as 200 HP but has a gross weight some 400 pounds lower than a typical Skyhawk. Its also got a smaller wing by about 50 square feet. As a result, the power loading of the RV is exceptional, giving you a lot of climb and cruise performance. Thats not to say a 260-HP Skyhawk would be as fast as an RV, but it would climb like crazy. Lancairs current two-seat, called the Legacy, carries the same power as a Beech A36 Bonanza, but has one- third the seats and a whole lot less airframe.

The bottom line is this: The speed is there but it comes at a price, either a small airframe or comparatively high fuel consumption. Experimental aircraft don’t repeal the laws of physics but instead tip them in their favor with a whole bunch of power.

Whos Alive, Whos Dead?
Unless youre a hard-core tinkerer, you should walk right on by any Experimental designed by a company no longer in business. Its a sad fact of the industry that many enterprising souls with good ideas and fine designs just don’t make it long term. Because of the nature of the business, its likely that these orphaned aircraft have little to no support beyond small band of builders working gamely to finish their airplanes.

Ongoing development is nil, and should the design display any kind of problem-durability, flight qualities, flutter, a case of smallpox-you’ll be on your own to come up with a fix. don’t underestimate this: An Experimental airplane without factory support is essentially a one-off. we’ll tell you this up front: don’t go there. don’t even think about it.

And even if the Experimental youre considering was designed and its kit components built by a company still among the living, there’s no guarantee that your particular airframe is still we’ll supported. Perhaps even more so than series-built airplanes, kitbuilts are subject to ongoing and considerable development-usually to make it easier to construct new kit parts but also to accommodate changes in suppliers.

The gear legs for your early RV, for example, may not be the same parts used in the current kits. Its likely replacement parts are out there in case you put the airplane into a ditch, but youre far less assured of this than if you owned a Cessna or Piper.

The traditional answer to this from the industry is: Well, you built the thing, so figure out how to fix it. But the dynamic changes dramatically when youre the second or third owner of the airplane.

Which part is actually on the airplane? Is it compatible with the new items coming from the factory? Is the one on my airplane installed the way its supposed to be, or did the builder make modifications to either improve it or cover up a mistake on his part? So many questions; few hard and fast answers. Because youre in the market for a used homebuilt, the only sensible thing to do is get one thats still supported. Lets take a quick look at a few of the leading, surviving companies whose products are available on the used market.

Vans Aircraft
The undisputed market leader in Experimental aviation, by an order of magnitude. More than 4000 Vans designs are flying and its said that at least three new ones take to the skies every day. Of course, the company has 20 years of chipping away at it and there’s no doubt that at least a few of the airplanes being birthed today have been a long, long time in the womb.

On the used market, you’ll find a variety of Vans designs. Heres the code. The RV-3 is the first of the mass-produced kits, a single-seat taildragger. The RV-4 is a two-seat version of the 3, much improved but still much in the same family. Next came the RV-6, perhaps the most popular kit of all time. This is a two-seater, but side by side, and can be had in a tri-gear version called the RV-6A. Its perhaps the most common Vans aircraft you’ll see in the classifieds.

Vans improved the design by employing match-hole tooling-all the skins are pre-punched with rivet holes to make the airframe essentially self-jigging. This technology brought the RV-7 (taildragger) and 7A (trigear.) A tandem-seat version is the RV-8 and RV-8A. In a slightly different vein is the RV-9 and 9A, which uses a different wing and tail and is intended to take slightly smaller engines than the 6, 7 and 8 series. The 9 can use up to a 160-HP Lycoming four-cylinder, while the others normally have 180-HP or 200-HP Lycomings.

Typical for Experimentals, the pre-RV-9 aircraft were designed to be light-handling, day-VFR playthings. They have excellent control response but considerably lower stability than production aircraft- entirely by design. Pilots fly these airplanes on instruments, but you can rest assured that its a lot more work than in, say, a Cessna 210. The RV-9 has firmer controls and is better suited to cross-country travel, but still is a comparatively small two-seater with low wing loading.

Vans latest entry is the RV-10, a four-placer with a big Lycoming (or a mid-size Continental) up front and true cross-country capabilities. Unfortunately for secondhand shoppers, the design is too new to be out there in. More likely, the first few to show up on the market will have been built on spec.

Lance Neibauers company continues to be a strong player in the market. For our purposes, the main models to consider on the used market are any of the two-place early designs–variously called the Lancair 235, 320 or 360. These pod-shaped aircraft follow the same theology as the early Vans aircraft-designed to be more fun to fly than stable. In fact, one Lancair 320 owner we know admits that a long cross- country in turbulence will leave the pilot pretty worn out. The small Lancair has the benefit of high wing loading for a good ride in bumpy air, but light control forces that require the pilot to use care when stirring the stick.

At the other end of the spectrum is the four-seat Lancair IV, the most common version of which is the pressurized IV-P. This is an exceedingly fast airplane packing 350HP from a twin-turbocharged TSIO-550. It goes fast because its clean and has an astoundingly small wing of just 98 square feet. (Its 108 square feet with the optional winglets.) Thats at a max gross weight near to that of a Bonanza on 40 percent less wing. Stall speed is listed as 63 knots, but every IV-P pilot will tell you that if youre banging around the pattern at less than 120 knots, youre courting trouble.

For a variety of reasons, the IV-P has a troubled safety record-some of which, we think, is because the airplane demands your undivided attention during approach and landing. Lets just say that the IV-P will require more piloting skill than some pilots can muster and even the good sticks admit they need recurrency training to stay sharp. Youve hear the term wont suffer fools? Thats the IV-P in a nutshell.

The company also builds a version of the IV called the ES, which has a lot more wing and fixed gear and looks a lot like the production Columbia. The ES is not common on the pages of Trade-A-Plane, however.

There are several models of the Glasair line on the used market at any given time. All are two-place aircraft. The small-engine version is the I and II and if you want to move up the scale, there’s the III, which normally packs a 300-HP Lycoming IO-540. Some Is and IIs are fixed-gear, while all the IIIs are retractable.

In our view, by some margin, the most desirable of these is the later II-S and Super II-S, stretched versions of the small-engine (180-HP) model. Prices for later-model IIs are still fairly high, although early examples are available for a lot less. As with any composite kit, you need to have someone who knows the structure and design of the Glasair intimately do a pre-purchase inspection for you. In general, these are straightforward aircraft, but determining how we’ll the builder did with his fiberglass work is not easy unless you know specifically what to look for.

The company has also produced two versions of the GlaStar, a high-wing utility aircraft. The original GlaStar is a two-place, while the current Sportsman is a 2+2. The used market is almost entirely the two-place version, largely biased toward the taildragger model.

Murphy kits have been around for 20 years, but only recently took off. They can charitably be called stone-simple aircraft with no-nonsense systems, boxy profiles and performance thats biased toward short-field and utility operations. Thats to say theyre pretty slow. If youre looking for a utility cruiser with speed, think about Cessna 210s instead.

What you want from an Experimental aircraft will determine, almost entirely, how happy you’ll be with the decision to buy one. we’ll make it easy. If you want something special-and are willing to look long and hard, and to employ experts who understand the model of airplane youre considering-and you will be happy with whats most likely to be a quick two-seat airplane, then (and only then) are you likely to find what you want. Even then, however, buying a used Experimental will come with headaches related to maintenance. you’ll need to be resourceful, patient and the type of person non-plussed by potentially vexing fix-it questions you may have to answer yourself. However, if what you really want is a faster, better-looking Bonanza or Mooney, an airplane that will be no more difficult to maintain, fly or insure, we suggest you keep looking for a Bonanza or Mooney. In terms of dispatch reliability, safety and practicality, the very best used Experimental is not likely to meet your expectations.

Also With This Article
“Our Definition of Guts: DIY Turboprop”
“Safety Record: High Risk First Flights”