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Pros and cons of non-certified aircraft

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What happened to @jwoolard?


My personal take on the whole experimental business is that in a large part it is selling dreams which a huge part of the takers can’t realize. The huge boom came when prices for certified airplanes inflated to insanity and people looked for a cheaper way to get a new airplane.

Only that this perception is totally wrong, in many cases. The price to pay is huge, if not all of it is monetary.

I would guestimate that apart from maybe 10% of buyers of plans or kits, the whole rest has NO idea what they are in for. The glossy brochures put out by these outfits promise building times which even professional builders struggle with. So a lot of these kits end up in garages and the buyers trying to sell them on after 10 years and total frustration, many of the kits having then ruined by two-left handed handymanwork of unqualified builders. So the number of 50% of kits eventually finished is actually very surprising to me.

The whole builder assist / factory build schemes are in principle fraudulent and should be either put to an end or then the 51% rule should be abolished and those planes be put into a cathegory where all which makes them different to certified planes is that they are uncertified and therefore have restricted use. Even better, finally repair the broken certification system so that many of these planes become certifyable and get rid of the whole fraud system in total.

In my view, either a plane is airworthy or it is not. If it is, it should be allowed to fly, under certification if with appropriate restrictions if the airplane warrants this. If it is not certifyable, it has no place in the sky as there are reasons for the certification standards and those planes who can’t meet those standards are dangerous and therefore belong out of the public’s hand. Some of those standards definitly are outdated and need changing, hence the broken system which, particularly in the US, has bancrupted ALL companies trying to certify a new GA airframe in the last 30 years and has sold the whole GA industry to China. This will one day be the ruin of GA altogether once the Chinese realize that they bought a in fact dead industry and that they will never earn any money with their purchases but be forced to throw more good money after the bad.

Those exceptional people who do build their own plane at home should be allowed to do so in the future as much as in the past and have the necessary support and assisstance, but it might be a good idea to get some consumer lawyers to review the promises made in sales brochures. People have to know that the average build time for a plane like this is around 20 years, that it will cost a multitude of the price they could get a very capable used certified airplane or even a factory built exemplar of the plane they are trying to tinker with and that the use of the finished result is at best limited. I would guestimate that with the full knowledge of all the facts behind building, maybe 1-2% of plans or kits would be sold!

The average worker has no time to even get his 12 hours together, let alone build a plane. Maybe some folks may find the time after retirement to keep them out of the hair of their wifes who dread the moment old grumpy is not going out for work every day and will keep him busy until he buys the farm over a 1/10th finished airframe which then can be sold as a “project” to some other dreamer.

LSZH(work) LSZF (GA base), Switzerland

Yes, let’s forbid/destroy/remove everything we don’t understand/like/agree with. The recepe for a happy life for everyone

The elephant is the circulation

LeSving wrote:

Yes, let’s forbid/destroy/remove everything we don’t understand/like/agree with. The recepe for a happy life for everyone


That is not what I am saying LeSving and you know it.

The problem in this whole industry is that certification standards have completely perverted the whole system and basically killed GA production almost world wide.

That is why people evade certification by going the experimental route. That is fine and legit as long as those planes are really homebuilt, but it is fraudulent if not. And we all know that the factory assist schemes are NOT 51% owner built but simply a way to avoid certification. Likewise, often superior avionics are sold uncertified because it is financially impossible to do so and therefore banned for most use, which has ended us with a near monopoly situation in terms of avionics as well as engines.

What I am saying is that for this kind of airplanes which have outputs like Van or other such large manufacturers, the certification standards need to adapt to reality and make it viable and economical for such companies to certify their planes and to LEGALLY build them in their factories and sell them. They have the potential to revive GA, but they are restricted to kit planes for now as they can not afford or don’t want to certify.

If certification standards were such that they measure up to reality and will allow certification at an affordable pace and workload, companies like Lancair, Van but also Avionic manufacturers like Dynon, Garmin and particularly engine makers as well as others could produce cheaper and more innovative.

In such a case, we would not have the absurd situation that more experimentals (who are NOT experimentals as we all know but proven designs) are built in factories with owners spending time there to cover legalities only to be restricted in their use (non commercial in the US, non-IFR and special permits in Europe, banned elsewhere) when there is no other reason than that none of these companies can afford certification or their planes would be as expensive as the others once certified.

That is what I am trying to bring across. GA needs to be given the leeway by the authorities which it needs. If we certify to airliner standards, we pay airliner prices. Apart from that and the absurd insurance problems in the US, there is no reason a new 4 seater could not be built and sold for maybe 25% of today’s end user prices!

Or if you like, we could even become more radical: cease certification for equivalent of part NCO planes altogether and only verify them airworthy as it is done with completed kits or, better, adapt certification to a point where it becomes more or less that.

All I am saying is: If an experimental is allowed to fly, it must be safe enough to do so. So it has been proven over and over particularly by the experimental cathegory that the current standard certification criteria are way over the top and are hindering development rather than assuring safety. So why do we have to lie about the construction and purpose of an airplane if it’s airworthy and safe to fly just in order to avoid a harrowing and imparing certification system rather than finally make the certification system something which would allow GA to come back to the levels it had in the 1950ties when it was possible to build and certify a new plane within 12 months from the outset?

Last Edited by Mooney_Driver at 15 Jun 10:04
LSZH(work) LSZF (GA base), Switzerland

While it is true to say that certification is obviously broken, it is completely wrong to accuse the builders of FAA “experimental/amateur built” category of “lying” or somehow circumventing the law. There is detailed guidance what gets counted under the 51% rule, kits get evaluated, and the builder assistance is structured to remain within the rules.

It is a shame that this method of building (individual airframe approval instead of very expensive manufacturer approval) is hamstrung by being purely national.

Biggin Hill

Mooney_Driver wrote:

The problem in this whole industry is that certification standards have completely perverted the whole system and basically killed GA production almost world wide.

Or, the problem is that:

  • Producing aircraft is very labor intensive
  • The cost of labor is comparably much higher today than 40-50 years ago.
  • The market is (way) too small too reach a production scale that will significantly reduce labor per aircraft by automation, as is done with consumer goods.
  • Therefore aircraft will remain expensive.

Vashon, as I linked to, tries to reduce cost by implementing small scale automation. But how much of that is real, and how much is simply sponsored by the multimillionaire CEO, who knows? Van’s builds his “quick builts” in Taiwan. A place that at least used to be low labor cost.

No matter how you look at it, the main problem is the cost of labor. Since this cost cannot be significantly reduced by automation (Vashon excepted, maybe, to some degree at least?), the only other option is to inject your own (free) labor into it.

Homebuilt aircraft is a way to reduce cost significantly, because most of the cost of payed labor is removed. Today we have lots of spare time, but we do not have additional money that will make up for the relative increase in labor cost. Factory built aircraft becomes more and more expensive in relative terms, while low labor intensive raw materials become cheaper and cheaper. However, homebuilt aircraft has never been primarily a way too reduce cost. Cost reduction (if any) has only been a bi product. There are two main reasons:

  • Get cool, high performance and/or special aircraft, Lancairs, RVs, Rutan and a whole bunch of others. Aircraft that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Experimental category.
  • An interest in aircraft technicalities that goes a bit further than the average PPL pilot.

In addition there is the urge to create stuff, or the lack of psychological barriers to at least try to do so, depending the point of view. A homebuilt RV-8/7/14 costs 100-200k, depending on the equipment, avionics and engine in particular + 1-2k hours of building. For the same amount of money you can get a very nice C-172 or similar category certified aircraft. The thing is, a C-172 or similar is non-interesting, irrelevant, simply not an option. It’s better to give up flying than humping along in a Cessna, TB, Piper etc.

At the same time aircraft producers of certified aircraft have stagnated with labor intensive processes. They still build and sell C-172s, and it’s built exactly the same way it was 40 years ago. The microlight industry is light years ahead, but getting production cost down is not a key point there either. People gladly pay 100-200k for a microlight. 15-20 years ago 50k for a microlight was way over the top.

Certified aircraft producers wanting to sell aircraft have to think in the same directions as Vashon. Reduce labor by small scale automation through new manufacturing techniques.

The elephant is the circulation

LeSving wrote:

They still build and sell C-172s, and it’s built exactly the same way it was 40 years ago.

Ask yourself why. Because today it is impossible even for the big companies to bring out something new and certify it without going broke. Columbia and Cirrus both are the clear proof of that, Cirrus only survived because the Chinese bought it, so did Mooney (whose M10 was also victim of the immense certification hurdles) and almost all others too. Columbia got bought by a company who never really wanted it and is history now, despite being a very nice airplane. Mooney is back upgrading the M20 and thankfully is selling again, but at what cost?

Yes manpower is an issue, but so is product liability (which killed the market in the first place) and certification (which kills innovation). Not even the biggest GA producers in the US today have the financial means to certify a new airplane. We have to deal with engines which were outdated in the days of JFK. We see development times for avionics which make them redundant the day the get certified. That is absurd and needs correction. And this thing also hurts the experimental market, after all those planes run on the same old engines too.

In Europe things are better, but not by much. Still, in recent years comparably we have seen a number of valid designs come up and running like the Tecnams, Diamonds and some others. The VLA and UL market is almost entirely European. That is also something that the US should think about.

On the other hand, you get the RV’s and Lancairs which prove that it IS possible to make better and newer airplanes if one is let. They fly with off the shelf electronics and all sorts of engines which are poh poh for the certified market. So they are airworthy, they fly safely and they cost a fraction. So why can’t certified airframes fly with the same components? Either they are safe or they are not?

Certification is a huge protecionist machinery which in the end will end up killing the own branch they are sitting on. As long as it’s not possible to certify any airworthy airplane and use it for whatever purpose it is fit, this is the largest problem GA faces all over the place. With it gone, I am sure we could get GA back up to the popularity it had in the 1950ties and also get the numbers back up to the levels they had then. But this does not work with 1’000’000$ SEPs, it would however with planes more people could afford.

LSZH(work) LSZF (GA base), Switzerland

We have done this before. There is no evidence (i.e. in company accounts) that product product liability was ever more than a theoretical issue.

With kit planes, the vendor avoids all sorts of things which cost money:

  • Certification
  • Supporting a dealer network, which adds almost no value at the best of times; that alone is worth some 20%
  • Warranty
  • You can have a design which is dodgy in various ways, and this is accepted, whereas in the certified sphere it would not be
  • The customers are a self selected population who won’t kick up a fuss (except by venting their frustrations on e.g. the Lancair forum) if something doesn’t fit, whereas if they bought a 500k plane from a dealer they will give the dealer a load of grief (I am well familiar with that scene ) and that is also worth a lot of money because it saves spending a ton of money on customer service.
  • Lower insurance premiums, due to smaller potential for comeback if somebody crashes (build quality issues are not your problem unless proved)
  • Pricey parts, such as engines and avionics, can be sourced off the certified scene, and even if you use certified (which you have to for e.g. IFR… avionics) you can buy cheaper kit without an 8130-3. Even an IO540 is some 20% cheaper.
  • Reduced factory labour cost; even not doing the wiring saves loads; it took Socata about a man-week to wire up a TB20, which is ridiculous.

I reckon you save 2/3 of the money, via the above.

Obviously there are other reasons for uncertified – one of which is that you can get a type which you can’t get certified.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

In the US, where and with whom I fly, Experimental Amateur Built is just the reality – that’s what almost everybody is doing, and very happily. All the hangars are filled with people working on their own planes (RVs are the norm) and they’re flying them a lot too. Those that aren’t homebuilt may be Experimental Exhibition, Russian or other exotica. Certified aircraft in private ownership are very often classics that are easily maintained by design. Run of the mill, new production certified planes aren’t generally owned by individuals, they are mostly highly utilized (e.g. rental) planes that can absorb the high depreciation and capital cost. The ‘new Cirrus’ bunch are a tiny, wealthy and almost invisible minority and nobody cares. Nobody has any ‘issues’ and few are complaining. Those who are, mostly complain as result of things that can’t be fixed.

I can understand the frustration in not being able to take part as a result of little time availability and/or as a result of living in a very tightly regulated country, but otherwise the marketplace is happy with the Experimental versus Certified situation and needs nothing to change. I might build my own after I retire when time is more available. Or perhaps I’ll buy some other kind of non-certified aircraft that needs more time than I can currently supply – in 2018, with a greater and greater proportion of people being retired, a lot of the aforementioned pilots and buyers already have the time they need. In the meantime I’ve stuck with production aircraft… which is OK because I chose my certified types carefully to maximize the fun, and they are a bargain to own in the current market. The lower purchase price of the certified types helps offset the inflexibility in certified avionics selection and anyway my preference is simple panels, VFR local and cross country, with minimized radio work.

Last Edited by Silvaire at 15 Jun 19:23

I know many people who fly homebuilts and – apart from some big downtime, but that’s nothing really specific to homebuilts – they seem to be having a great time.

The aircraft fulfil a niche, in terms of performance / size / shape / etc, and in the UK you get the massive privilege of being able to fly them on the NPPL with the medical self declaration because they are outside EASA’s grip. You also get slightly cheaper maintenance for various reasons – so long as you can do it or find somebody who can.

One Q might be how many of them would be flying a homebuilt if they had to build it over 2k-3k hours. Pretty obviously the answer is “very few” – looking at the people I know, no more than a few %. So clearly many builds are passed on, as untouched kits, partially built, or finished aircraft. That is a good thing too, so long as those who didn’t finish don’t get too p1ssed off

It’s a pity some of Europe seems to be tightening the rules. I was talking to some homebuilders at Booker yesterday; one of them just got caught having bought a D-reg one, which is now useless in the UK and would be useless in France.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom
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