Seven years ago, the engine in Jon Croke’s Zenith 701 failed on takeoff, crashing the homebuilt into trees a short distance from his backyard strip in Brussels, Wis. “Although the aircraft was destroyed, I miraculously walked away from the wreck without a scratch,” says Croke.
He also walked away with a new career: Founder of HomebuiltHELP, a company that produces instructional videos for homebuilders. Of course, he didn’t realize that at the time.
The day after the crash, he ordered a new 701 kit and began the project about a month later when the first parts arrived. “As the rudder was the first section of the kit to be constructed, I decided to use my skills as a technical educator to describe each step, on camera, to create a video presentation for those who wondered what it took to build a kit aircraft,” said Croke, whose “day job” was as a corporate educator who traveled the country teaching Oracle software programming to the IT departments of large companies. “I already possessed skills in computer video editing from my job, so that part came naturally. This was the second time around building that rudder, so the presentation of the building techniques was easy. This effort resulted in the Metalworking101 video, which chronicled every step required to understand how the rudder is constructed. A video chapter was also included that demonstrated the use of the metalworking tools required for building.”
In 2004, Croke created a website with a marketing pitch that promised that the $29 video would show anyone how to put together an aircraft kit rudder — virtually step by step. A price of $29 was set with no extra charge for postage or handling.
The video really took off, however, after officials at Zenith Aircraft offered it for sale on the kit builder’s website. “This nearly doubled sales, which had been about five copies per month,” Croke said.
“Although it would have been easy to call it quits and make this the only video, the feedback from viewers made me feel like a millionaire,” he continued. “As the months passed, customers regularly sent e-mail comments that carried some common themes: The video made the effort so easy compared to relying on the written plans and instructions from Zenith and the project was now able to be finished, where it had been previously stalled due to problems and lack of confidence in building. It is an amazing feeling to receive such compliments and to be thanked for something you did.”
For the next year, Croke continued his full-time job teaching Oracle software around the country, while sales of the Metalworking video were slow but steady. He also had another video in the works, but with a twist: He decided to use another person’s expertise.
“Having flown ultralights for a number of years, I knew the importance of maintaining 2-stroke Rotax engines, so I figured what pilots needed was to have an expert engine rebuilder describe and demonstrate an engine teardown and show the areas of wear.”
An arrangement was made with a Rotax repair mechanic to film a detailed account of an engine overhaul and analysis. Traveling to the mechanic’s shop, eight hours of filming produced a three-hour video, “Deep Inside your Rotax.”
From there, the company’s catalog took off. “There are about 35 titles and that number continues to grow,” said Croke, who quit his day job to devote his full time to the new company.
The videos fall into two categories: Individual topics that apply to most all aircraft (Weight & Balance, Scratch Building, Electrical 101, etc.); and specific aircraft libraries, including the Zenith CH701, CH750, CH601, and the Van’s RV-12.
“Building these entire aircraft is quite an undertaking, so there are multiple video titles for each aircraft model,” he noted.
Croke is seen on camera as the builder, but explained that he always has a couple of A&P mechanics off camera to consult for the best techniques to be used at each step.
As Croke finishes up the RV-12 videos, he also recently completed a video detailing the step-by-step construction of amphibious floats. Next up? “We’ll select another popular kit aircraft, probably Sonex,” he said.
The company’s most popular video to date — “and I still am amazed,” Croke said — is Scratch Building Basics, a double DVD set that features “one of the best metal aircraft builders, Mark Townsend, who can make every piece of the aircraft from raw materials. The video captures his unique talent of explaining and demonstrating the techniques and tools that anyone can learn to duplicate his efforts.”
The company continues to get a lot of feedback from its customers, so much so that a “Wall of Shame” (referring to the slightly shameful nature of boasting about accolades, Croke explained) contains many of the customer testimonials.
“You cannot imagine how nice it is to hear, ‘I could not have finished this project without your video. You saved me money from mis-drilling that part when I saw how you did it’ to other comments like, ‘It would have taken me 10 minutes to figure how those parts were supposed to go together from looking at the drawing; it made perfect sense in an instant when I saw you put them together.’”
Croke also hears from a different kind of customer — those just thinking of tackling a homebuilt project.
“Many customers purchase these DVDs prior to purchasing the aircraft of their interest,” he said. “These DVDs have sold many aircraft as prospects can see what it takes to build before taking the plunge.”
For more information: HomebuiltHELP.com