Sometimes the best option for building a homebuilt aircraft is not building it at home at all.
For some wanna-be homebuilders, the idea of having the project take over their hangars and garages — not to mention their lives — for years is unacceptable. They’d much rather expedite the building process and get on to flying.
This fact did not escape the folks at Glasair Aviation LLC in Arlington, Wash., which manufactures the Sportsman 2+2 kit aircraft. In 2005 the company opened a Customer Assembly Center, which allowed kit buyers to reduce the build times of their aircraft from years to a month, but company president Michael Via felt they could do better.
“He came up with the idea of getting the airplane to taxi status in two weeks,” explains Ted Setzer, research and development manager. “When he shared that vision, every single one of us to a person said ‘you’re out of your mind…this can’t be done’,” Setzer recalls. “He said that just fueled him all the more!”
The team sat down and figured out how to make it happen. Originally, the idea was for a three-week program, but that was trimmed to two weeks because, Setzer notes, most people have just two weeks of vacation a year.
The Two Weeks to Taxi Program, which kicked off last September, turns out two airplanes a month because only one customer can go through it at a time. The timing of when a customer shows up depends on when the company gets the components it needs, such as propellers and engines, from suppliers.
As the name implies, the program takes the aircraft from its component stage to the taxi test stage.
“The wings are on it and the wheels are on it,” says Setzer. “When they are done with the program, we take the wings off of it again — the Sportsman’s wings are foldable — and customers load it onto a trailer or into a truck and take it home where they will finish the work.”
THE 51% RULE
Builders interested in the two-week program are people who are time crunched, explains Setzer. The program also attracts people who are a little intimidated by the enormity and complexity of building an airplane.
“They may be asking themselves, ‘Do I have the skills to do this?’ Maybe they don’t have the tools and are not sure if they want to go out and buy them,” he says. “They see the benefit of us providing all the tools. We hear that constantly, along with ‘I love this airplane, but I do not have two to four years to build an airplane.'”
Customers need to show up ready and able to work.
“Don’t expect to show up and have a bunch of mechanics working on the aircraft while you stand by with a camera,” Setzer warns, explaining that, to comply with the 51% rule, there are specific tasks that a builder must accomplish. Glasair officials take those tasks and put them on paper and mount the paper on a wall. The tasks are drawn from FAA Form 8000-38, which lays out what parts must be built by an aircraft owner to qualify under the 51% rule.
“It’s pasted up there like a giant map and we go down the list,” says Setzer. “Color coding helps keep the jobs on track and the builder must sign off on each item. Form 8000-38 says, for example, that the customer must do a number of fabrications of brackets to qualify for this line in the fuselage section or in the wing section. When you first look at this big task list, you ask, ‘How do they know what I am supposed to do and what the mechanics do?’ That’s Form 8000-38 again. We designed the program so that it meets the letter and intent of the law.”
The mechanics do all the setup and prep work and the cleanup. The customer focuses on the actual construction. When they finish with one task, customers immediately move on to the next station.
“They learn by doing. It is intense,” Setzer admits. “At the end of the day they are tired, but by the end of the build process they know that airplane inside and out.”
That’s very true, says customer Tom Rains from Huntsville, Ala. “I graduated from military flight school in 1967 and have more than 6,500 hours, but I feel that I know this airplane better than any airplane I have ever flown. I am retired military and I worked many years for Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, so I was familiar with the process of aircraft manufacturing, but this was the first time I was hands-on aluminum.”
Rains prepared for the program by studying the CD manual that Glasair sent to him several months before he arrived in Washington.
“It has the instructions for building each component and a section on the tools that you need, as well as the techniques that you will use,” he says. “I also attended a sheet metal workshop put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association. I had never worked with sheet metal before. Doing that workshop really put me ahead of the game because one of the first things you do when you get here is a lot of sheet metal work. You start with riveting the wings.”
Riveting is one of the more intimidating tasks that the clients do, says Setzer. “We have an old wing that we allow them to practice on before they actually get to work on their aircraft. They do it a few times on the practice wing, then they’re ready to take it on.”
Each day customers are briefed on what they will be doing. All the necessary jigs are hanging on the wall and the parts and tools that are needed are laid out in the order that they will be used.
“It’s like being in an operating room,” Rains says. “The doctor asks for the scalpel or whatever and the operating nurse hands it to him. There is no running down to Home Depot or wherever to get the tool you need and, best of all, because it is in their facility it is exactly the right tool you need right when you need it.”
The parts for each component assembly are carefully sorted and kept in clear plastic tubs. Toolboxes are labeled with the name of the component they are utilized for.
“It is incredibly well organized,” says Chip Swett from Wenatchee, Wash., who went through the program at the end of April. “Every moment of the day is orchestrated so you can accomplish what you need to accomplish in those two weeks. They helped me come out with a production quality airplane. If I had done it all on my own it would not be as well made.”
“They also give you about two hours of homework each evening, where you are reading up on what you will do the next day,” Rains adds.
Because the mechanics are always there to supervise, there are fewer mistakes, says Setzer.
“We’re always looking over the customer’s shoulder,” he says.
BUILDING ABETTER PLANE
Doing the same tasks over and over again also inspires the mechanics at Glasair to develop new means of construction to make the assembly process more efficient. Setzer cites as an example some refinements made to the way the wingtips are installed.
“They were taking us on average four hours to install,” he says. “We had to put a rib in, laminate it, pull it back off and so forth.
There were multiple steps to get a wing tip to fit right and function correctly. Then we thought, ‘We could make a new tool to make it easier.’ So we made an improvement to the tooling process and brought that online.
“The Two Weeks to Taxi program is an ongoing production laboratory, if you will, where those types of developments take place because we don’t have an airplane set aside that we strictly do development on,” he continues.
Often the customers going through the program during the development of a refinement have the option of theirs being the test aircraft.
“Most of them are very excited to be part of it,” Setzer notes. “They get to brag that they have the newest or the coolest whatever.”
Every refinement goes through a Configuration Control Review, which entails the development review group looking at the proposed change to determine what impact it will have on the rest of the aircraft.
“That’s to make sure the developments are done correctly,” Setzer says. “The certified aircraft companies have the same process.”
Customers who choose to build on their own, at home, also benefit from the refinements in the construction process because the construction manuals are updated, he adds.
To date there have not been any complaints about the program, says Setzer.
“The customers are working hard all day long but it is very enjoyable. Every single customer has expressed satisfaction with the program and how much was learned during it. It is a real sense of accomplishment.”
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