Soaring on Homemade Wings

With small-plane manufacturing slowed by threats of liability suits, amateur flight enthusiasts are building their own craft from kits

SOME people defy blizzards and ice to climb mountains. Some shun domestic tranquility to pan for gold in Alaska. And others, like Norm DeWitt, buy a $50,000 airplane in a kit and spend 8-1/2 years assembling it in a garage.

Mr. DeWitt, a computer consultant and aeronautical engineer, is one of a growing number of American men (and a few women) who build their own airplanes from frame to wing struts in their spare time.

In 1994, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in Oshkosh, Wis., 1,169 new amateur-built airplanes were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), up slightly from 1993. And a survey by the monthly KITPLANES magazine reports that 3,898 kits were sold in 1993, up from 1,943 in 1992.

''The numbers keep going up because there are thousands of these things in garages and hangars being built now,'' says Dave Martin, editor of KITPLANES.

But in stark contrast to the excitement and satisfaction these amateurs experience in building and flying planes built from kits, FAA records indicate that since 1972 more than 204 people have lost their lives in crashes.

''The figure is probably higher,'' says Bob Hoppers, an FAA spokesman, ''because we know there have been fatalities with ultralights, and they are not registered aircraft.''

While most of these crashes can be attributed to pilot error, manufacturers sell kits and plans that are certified only after they are built. ''We don't evaluate or approve the kits,'' said Michael Gallager, manager of production and airworthiness certification of the FAA.

The FAA checks in irregularly with kit builders so that construction meets engineering standards.

''Yes, the onus is on the builder,'' says Chris Lampe, a spokesman for BEDE Aircraft Corporation, a kit manufacturer in Chesterfield, Mo. Unlike makers of small commercial airplanes, kit manufacturers face virtually no liabilities.

''If someone crashes and gets killed,'' Mr. Martin says, ''and the family decides to sue the kit manufacturer and wins, they are the owners of a kit company.'' Few kit manufacturers are large enough, or successful enough, to have resources to defend themselves in lawsuits.

'AMATEUR-BUILT aircraft have comparable safety to other certified general aviation aircraft,'' Mr. Gallager says. ''We haven't seen a trend that they are less safe.''

What has led to the growth of amateurs building airplanes is a decrease in the commercial production of small planes in the US over the last 25 years. ''Liability insurance drove up the price of the planes so high,'' says Mr. Lampe, ''and companies could be sued over a plane they built 50 years ago.''

Older planes do not meet current safety standards. If accidents occurred in these older planes, the manufacturers remained liable even 50 years later. ''The industry has virtually quit building,'' says Janet Schug, a spokeswoman for EAA. ''A company could be sued forever.''

But last year Congress passed a bill that limits the liability of civilian airplane manufacturers to 18 years. Experts hail the law. They say it will breathe new life into a dormant industry.

The FAA encourages amateur-built planes in order to put flying within reach of the tens of thousands of amateurs who want to fly. New technology, materials, and concepts in flying are often experimented with in the amateur-built arena.

''I took a factory tour of a kit manufacturer, and I thought, gee, that doesn't look that tough. I could do that,'' says DeWitt, a licensed pilot and airplane owner for years, ''So I agonized for a month, and then bought the first part of the kit [for a Christen Eagle], and away I went.''

As the kit industry mushrooms, many impatient builders have hired ''surrogate builders.'' Last year the FAA revised its policy, saying that kit buyers can no longer hire ''surrogate builders'' and expect certification.

The FAA ruled that the ''major portion of the plane'' must be built by the purchaser of the kit.

At the San Carlos, Calif., airport, south of San Francisco, DeWitt pulls his plane from a small hangar into the sunlight. Painted a glossy black with bright colored stripes on the wings, the plane seats two and has a wing span of almost 20 feet. Covered with a lightweight polyester material and powered by a 200 horsepower engine, it is designed for aerobatics and can reach 200 miles an hour.

''I didn't put a time limit on building this,'' DeWitt says. ''I had another plane to fly, so I wanted this to be fun.''

Aviat Inc. in Wyoming manufactures the Christen Eagle kits. An estimated 400 Eagles have been built since the plane was first introduced in 1977.

ANNUAL insurance on kit planes can be high, more than $2,000, depending on the plane and the experience of the pilot. Rates are higher for less experienced pilots.

When DeWitt bought the kit nearly nine years ago, it came with 26 detailed instruction manuals. ''If you can dream it, you can make it happen,'' he says. More than 500 manufacturers sell kits or plans.

''Most are mom-and-pop operations,'' Mr. Martin says, ''but many have been around for years.''

Kits can cost from $3,500 to more than $80,000. Because so few small planes are being commercially manufactured, it is difficult to compare costs and savings between the two.

Kit planes range from basic models with wings, an open cockpit, and an engine to sleek all-fiberglass, swept-wing models on the cutting edge of design. Others are based on antique designs like cropdusters from the 1920s, or replicas of P-51's from World War II.

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