How To Build Your Own Aeroplane In Two Weeks

How To Build Your Own Aeroplane In Two Weeks

Earlier this month, Doug Berry set out to build his very own aeroplane. Now he has a shiny new four-seater with a turbocharged engine and a sleek carbon fibre body. Here’s how he put everything together.

When Doug Barry set out to build his own aeroplane earlier this month, he wasn’t entirely sure where he’d be at this point.

Where he is is “done”.

The New Mexico resident and experienced pilot built a Glasair Sportsman TC. It’s a four-seater with a turbocharged engine and carbon fibre body. And he assembled it in just two weeks. Well, 11 days, if you want to be exact.

“I was a bit apprehensive,” Barry says. “I didn’t think you could build something of that calibre in that amount of time. It’s pretty satisfying, putting the machine together in two weeks, and it flew well.”

Barry didn’t build the aeroplane alone. It came together during the ultimate DIY aviation vacation: Glassair’s “Two Weeks to Taxi” program, which provides a would-be Howard Hughes with everything needed to build an aeroplane. It’s a handy way to help the home builder avoid the most common pitfall of DIY aviation – never finishing the project.

Barry arrived at Glassair’s factory – about 20 minutes from Boeing’s huge factory outside Seattle – on Nov. 1. He completed his first flight this past Tuesday. His new plane goes into the paint shop on Monday, and Barry plans to fly it home sometime next month.

“It’s better than a factory plane, you know everything that’s inside of it,” he says. “With a factory plane, all you can trust is that somebody else did it right. I know it’s right, I was there, I built it.”

Inside Glasair’s customer build hangar

Glasair has been making kit planes for nearly 30 years, but its accelerated build program has drawn a whole new clientele who see building their own high-performance plane as a great way to spend a vacation. It also ensures they finish what they’ve started.

Homebuilt planes, officially known as experimental amateur-built aircraft, have long been popular. Traditionally, the homebuilt market has appealed to pilots eager to fly aircraft that simply aren’t built the major manufacturers. Such planes can also offer a relatively cheap way to get into flying. More than 30,000 of these kinds of airplanes have been built in the United States.

Trouble is, it can take years to finish the job. Home builders typically work in their garages, basements and even living rooms, and it can take anywhere from several hundred to several thousand hours. Not everyone finishes it. No one keeps any kind of statistics, but the consensus is there might be as many planes finished as not.

So Glasair, which sells kits to pilots around the world, started thinking about how to help customers build their planes in less time while adhering to Federal Aviation Administration rules that say the “major portion” of the aircraft must be “fabricated and assembled by person(s) who undertook the construction project solely for their own education or recreation.”

This is commonly referred to as the “51 percent rule,” the idea being the builder must do 51 percent of the tasks needed to build the aeroplane. The rule was adopted because DIY aviation has evolved over the years from people buying a set of plans and fabricating everything themselves (original out-of-print plans of some designs, such as Burt Rutan’s Long-EZ.

Glasair knew much of the time spent building an aeroplane wasn’t actually spent building an aeroplane. A lot of it is spent tracking down tools, searching for parts and trying to make heads or tails of the instruction manual. If it could shave a lot of that time out of the process and still let customers do the heavy lifting, it could stay within the 51 percent rule.

“We figure people are about 20 percent efficient at home,” says Scott Taylor, operations manager at Glasair. “Here we’re about 85 percent efficient.”

Taylor says the typical builder follows what he calls the “lights on, lights off” way of building. From the time he turns on the lights in the garage until the time they’re turned off, a builder might spend eight hours on any given Saturday working on their plane. But that time will include making a trip to the hardware store, searching for that half-inch socket, building a jig to fabricate a part, or simply shooting the breeze with a fellow pilot over lunch.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and for many builders it’s part of the fun – unless you’re trying to finish your plane in a reasonable amount of time.

“Going and buying the tool, building the jig – it’s all non-essential parts of the 51 percent rule,” Taylor says. “We can do all that.”

So Glasair set up a hangar adjacent to the factory where it manufacturers many of the pieces in its kits. Customers are invited to build their planes with help from Glasair employees. The customer does all of the work, but has an all-star team streamlining the process.

“They’re so organized is what makes it go so smooth,” Barry said. “They give you the tool and all the parts for that one task (you’re working on). It’s all right there.”

Glasair technicians streamline the building process.

An assistant sets out the pieces to be assembled each day and a bin parts needed to complete that particular task. Tools also are laid out neatly and another assistant, an FAA licensed mechanic, is there to explain what’s what and show how it all goes together.

The FAA has reviewed Glasair’s program and says it complies with the spirit and intent of the 51 percent rule.

Depending on the options, a finished a Sportsman TC built with the factory assistance will cost around $US200,000, about $US20,000 more than you’d pay for the same kit shipped to your door. And since the factory assistance program only uses new engines and other standard equipment, a builder could save money elsewhere. But most customers these days are opting to save the time and pay for the expertise they get by building their aeroplane in the Glasair hangar.

Buying a turnkey, factory built aeroplane similar to a TC (which doesn’t really exist) would cost you something well north of $US300,000.

Doug Barry and a Glasair technician rivet the wing together.

About 150 airplanes have been built so far by customers who’ve come from as far away as South Africa, Australia and even China. The program has evolved since it started four years ago. Initially, the goal was to reach the point where the plane could taxi under its own power but not fly. The plane would be trucked to the customer’s house for the last 10 percent or so of the build (which many builders joke takes 90 percent of the time needed to build the plane).

Glasair refined the program. After working six 10-hour days the first week and five 10-hour days the second, most builders stick around another couple of days for an official inspection by the FAA and their first flight. Not all opt to make that flight themselves; some choose to let a Glasair pilot make the first hop. Taylor says that’s common among pilots who don’t have much time in a Glassair sportsman. It also helps identify any issues.

“If there are any squawks, we can fix them right there” Taylor says.

The Sportsman can easily be changed between tricycle gear and a conventional, tail dragger.

Barry had a fair amount of time flying a Sportsman before building his own. The plane’s hauling capabilities, along with its speed and take off performance, prompted him to build a new one. The latest model replaces much of the original’s fiberglass construction with a lighter carbon fibre composite. In a typical configuration, the aeroplane can carry more than 1,100 pounds, an impressive number for this size of an aeroplane.

Carbon fibre is used throughout the Sportsman TC.

The standard 180 horsepower motor is turbo-normalized, which means it doesn’t get a power boost from the turbocharger. Instead, the turbo allows the engine to maintain 180 horsepower as it climbs to altitudes where thinner air normally robs an engine of power. Glasair says the Sportsman TC can maintain full power up to 20,000 feet. For a pilot like Barry, who flies in and out of airports located more than 6,000 feet above sea level, the turbo means increased performance and safety.

The Sportsman is nicely outfitted with glass panel displays, leather seats and plenty of carbon fibre. The displays superimpose routine flight information such as airspeed, altitude and the artificial horizon over a simulated, digital display of the terrain. The terrain is colour coded, so when you see a red mountain ahead, you know it’s above you and you’d better climb if you want to make it over.

Glass panel displays fill the panel of the Sportsman TC.

And boy does the Sportsman TC likes to climb. Designed to take off and land in very short distances (about 350 feet), it can climb at more than 2,500 feet per minute with just a single person aboard.

During a recent demo flight, Glasair pilot Ted Setzer walked me through some of the plane’s capabilities. It has a much sportier feel you’d expect, given its traditional appearance. Roll response is quick, much more reminiscent of an aerobatic aeroplane than a typical Cessna. The cruise speed is also very good, about 150 mph while burning around eight gallons per hour.

But the most impressive aspect of flying the Sportsman TC is it’s ability to fly slow. To demonstrate how a pilot might climb out of a mountainous environment, Setzer had me slow down from 130 mph to about 40 mph. With full flaps deployed and full power, the aeroplane pointed its nose skyward and we were climbing at around 700 to 800 feet per minute.

Slow flight is where the Sportsman TC really shows it’s stuff. Climbing at 35 knots (~40mph) and ready to start the turn.

Then Setzer told me to start a turn. This is something most pilots would not recommend. But with a gentle push of the stick to the left and a dab of rudder, I started to turn. Setzer even had me pull the stick back to feel the gentle stall characteristics while in the turn. It’s a non-event. A gentle push forward on the stick and the mushy stall disappears. We keep climbing.

It was an unusual feeling to say the least, as we were barely moving over the ground while climbing out of a simulated canyon. It felt like we were hanging from a string being pulled upward. The Sportsman is not the only aeroplane capable of such a manoeuvre, but it is an impressive demonstration of an airplane’s capabilities. And the turbocharging allows the Sportsman to do it at higher altitudes than most.

Barry found it impressive as well, saying, “I’ve never piloted anything that climbs that well.”

Barry is currently driving home to New Mexico. He’d rather be flying. But he plans to return to Arlington in a few weeks to retrieve his freshly painted aeroplane and begin completing the 40 hours that must be flown during the initial certification process for an amateur built aeroplane.

Once finished, he’ll be flying, instead of driving, over the high mountains between Washington and New Mexico.

Photos: Jason Paur /, Glasair has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.