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The Ins & Outs Of Experimental Aircraft

The popularity of working with one’s own hands to take to flight began long before the Wright brothers ever started experimenting in Kitty Hawk. Flying machines were being thought up, experimented with, and attempted long before the settlers colonized the U.S.

But, unfortunately, those early “homebuilt” machines weren’t always safe. To make these machines safe, the government found it necessary to have some oversight. That oversight began in October of 1952. 

For the first time, the U.S. government included an “experimental” amateur-built category in the Civil Aeronautics Manual. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was around this same time, in January of 1953, that the Experimental Aircraft Association was founded in Wisconsin.

At Stockton Propeller, we love the challenge of working with our experimental aircraft customers and on their custom aircraft propellers. If you’re looking for someone in the Northern California/Nevada region to work on your homebuilt’s propellers including to repair the propeller blade, contact us today.

What Is An Experimental Aircraft?

“Experimental” is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designation for amateur-built or homebuilt aircraft. The “experimental” identification has been around for over 60 years. 

It’s an aircraft used for non-commercial or recreational purposes, such as education or personal use. The term refers to the FAA category for the airplane’s registration, not the exclusivity of the plane’s design or the aircraft’s use. 

Suppose an individual builds at least 51% of an aircraft. In that case, one may register the plane in the FAA’s “Experimental” or amateur-built category. 

Builders can work from kits (with parts of the airplane fabricated) or plans (where the builder purchases all the pieces and then assembles them). 

These amateur-built, or experimental, airplanes are also commonly referred to as “homebuilts.” The name is obvious because many individuals construct aircraft and custom aircraft propellers at home. Construction often occurs in their garages or other outbuildings.

There are currently over 32,000 amateur-built aircraft licensed by the FAA. They have been registered and flown safely for many years.

Curiously, the FAA’s “Experimental” category also includes approximately ten other subcategories. These include aircraft used for crew training or air racing. They also have historic aircraft (such as World War II military aircraft) flown in air shows and exhibitions.

Experimental aircraft are not the same as “ultralights.” Ultralights are one-person flying machines operating under a completely different set of federal regulations. 

Amateur experimental aircraft and homebuilt custom aircraft propellers are registered with the federal government in the same manner as production aircraft with corresponding “N-numbers” on the fuselage.

Who Builds Experimental Airplanes?

There isn’t just one demographic for those interested in taking on this project themselves. Builders include astronauts, airline pilots, military jet pilots, mechanics, machinists, welders, professional people, and many others.

Why do they build them?

There’s a variety of reasons why someone chooses this particular DIY project. 

  • They could see it as a personal challenge
  • They may want to educate themselves more on the “nuts and bolts” of flying
  • They could be seasoned pilots looking to increase their performance in the skies
  • They may want to invest some “sweat equity” into custom planes and airplane propellers instead of purchasing a manufactured aircraft. 

While a few homebuilt airplanes are custom or original designs, the vast majority of builders use standardized, tried-and-true kits or plans. These plans or kits are constructed successfully by the hundreds, if not thousands.

What Goes Into Building Your Airplane and Custom Airplane Propellers?

Most enthusiasts will tell you that it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

The cost of building your airplane range may range from under $10,000 to more than $100,000. Many factors contribute to this price variation, including your desired performance characteristics and any optional engine and avionics packages you choose

For comparison, a new factory-built Cessna 172 costs more than a quarter of a million dollars. 

Many homebuilts utilize composite materials that help create lighter, faster, and more fuel-efficient airplanes than similar production aircraft.

It can take a while, however….

Building an amateur aircraft and your custom airplane propellers will take somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 hours to complete, on average.

Some individuals complete their airplane in less than a year. Others may take a decade or more.

A Few “Extra” Facts About Experimental Aircraft

  • Experimental aircraft are regulated, just like manufactured aircraft. The plane still has to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, inspected by an FAA inspector, and issued an airworthiness certificate.
  • An amateur-built airplane is subject to the same condition inspections every 12 months as small production aircraft undergo.
  • You don’t need a license to build your aircraft; all you need is the will fly one! To fly, you must earn and maintain the same federal pilot’s training and ratings as those who fly factory-built aircraft, including Pipers, Cessnas, and Beechcraft. 
  • Also, planes and custom airplane propellers must follow the same appropriate federal regulations during their flights.
  • Experimental aircraft are practically as safe as manufactured aircraft. Studies by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show that experimental aircraft have an accident rate of less than 1% higher than the general aviation community.

Finding The Right People To Work On Your Custom Aircraft Propellers

There are very few surprises or breakthroughs when it comes to experimental aircraft design. 

Much like a relationship, every airplane build is a compromise: If you want a little more of this, you have to give up some of that. And vice versa. 

The freedom to fly something that doesn’t meet standard certification means that an airplane licensed in the experimental category will most likely fly differently than the norm. 

Its performance is optimized toward certain criteria that were important to the designer and builder. You’ll probably see sacrifices in other details to achieve that end.

Homebuilding is about freedom. The freedom to build what you want, use whatever materials you choose, and achieve whatever point you wish to make. Because homebuilders can create, modify, or change their aircraft as they want, there may be a chance for replication.

Then there’s always the freedom of expression. A homebuilt is like a blank canvas. The builder sketches out pretty much anything they want, putting their name on a design. They are free to do so, as long as it doesn’t endanger their life, passengers, or the populace below during flights.

At Stockton Propeller, we love the challenge of working with our experimental aircraft customers and working on their custom aircraft propellers. If you’re looking for someone in the Northern California/Nevada region to work on your homebuilt’s propellers, contact us today.