Judgment Day

Inventive design or fatal flaw? On a homebuilt airplane, one person makes the call.

DAR Jon Ross checks an RV-4’s innards. (Courtesy Jon Ross)
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Ed Schupp’s newly completed Van’s RV-9A kitplane sat center-hangar at the Hedgesville, West Virginia airpark, stripped down for a thorough inspection: Cowling, panels, and plastic fairings had been removed, exposing the levers, pulleys, and other mechanical magic that make an airplane slave to the pilot’s command. James R. (Bobby) Thomas was on his way there to make sure this bird would fly.

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As a designated airworthiness representative (DAR) for amateur-built aircraft, Thomas, 76, is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the airworthiness of what are commonly referred to as homebuilt aircraft—the metal, tube-and-fabric, or composite creations that take shape in basements and garages throughout the nation. Pilots work weeks, years, or sometimes decades to make an airplane they can take off and fly in, their lives invested in every rivet. When the builder is done, he calls in an expert to inspect the aircraft; if it passes, the builder is awarded a small pink certificate declaring that the aircraft is safe and legal. When Schupp was done, he called Thomas.

More than 30,000 U.S.-registered aircraft are classified as “experimental amateur-built.” The category, which allows amateurs to construct an airplane “for educational or recreational purposes,” helps lessen the sting of rising aircraft prices—a kitplane can cost a fraction of a production airplane—and frees designers and builders to experiment with unusual designs.

Building and flying one’s own aircraft is only for a certain kind of pilot. Thomas estimates that out of each of the 1,000 or so chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization founded to support amateur airplane builders, about 10 percent of the members are “doers”—people who go beyond dreaming to buy some sheet metal and start riveting. Of those, he estimates, 30 percent finish their project. And of the finishers, several dozen have gone on to become eligible to issue airworthiness certificates to their fellow builders.

Thomas had retired from a banking career in which he financed aircraft, and in 2004, having built four airplanes, he became a DAR. The FAA had created a DAR qualification specifically for amateur-built aircraft in 2002; Thomas was one of the first to qualify in that category. “The aviation community gave me a life,” he says; now he’s giving back, by keeping people from killing themselves.

Designees like Thomas perform functions similar to those of FAA staff inspectors and report to agency supervisors; they allow the agency to cover more ground with fewer full-time employees.

The FAA taps into the collective wisdom of a community—“airport bums” who have spent enough time machining or rib-stitching to know where another builder is likely to go wrong, and to distinguish between a strange design decision and a potentially fatal flaw. Inspectors who qualify from their homebuilding experience must have built an aircraft that has flown for at least 100 hours and have experience conducting routine inspections on amateur-built aircraft. They must be certified airframe-and-powerplant mechanics, though not necessarily by vocation. From a director of flight operations to a retired professional banjo player, they come to the position from all walks of life. By late 2011, 251 DARs were authorized to give airworthiness certificates to amateur-built aircraft; former EAA Government Relations Director Randy Hansen estimates that about a fifth qualified from their homebuilding experience, mostly through their affiliation with EAA. (Those sponsored by EAA are reimbursed for expenses by the builder but volunteer their time for the inspection; others may charge the builder from $300 to $1,500, Hansen says.)

Like many of his fellow DARs, Thomas earned his bona fides as much from practical experience as from formal schooling. He started building his first airplane in 1970, he says—a single-seat, metal Parker Teenie Two with an empty weight of a little more than 300 pounds. You could build it out of truck body aluminum, using a Volkswagen engine and Coca-Cola hand truck wheels, he adds. By the time he enrolled in A&P classes at Frederick Community College in Maryland, he had already built the Teenie and a Sonerai racer, and had started on a Wittman Tailwind. He learned the trade largely by helping his friend and mentor Richard Roberts rebuild and re-engine aircraft.

Hang out at airports until someone puts you to work: It’s a strategy as old as aviation itself. Jon Ross, a DAR based in Long Island, New York, says he earned his A&P license in the “school of hard knocks.” While working as a flight instructor, he spent the time he wasn’t teaching at the shop. “I got it by having mentors, people who leaned over my shoulder,” he says.

As he drove the familiar, winding roads to the West Virginia field where Ed Schupp’s airplane waited, Thomas recalled Roberts and others who have populated his life in aviation. The ones who lived and died by aviation—like Roberts, who died in a crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno in 1998—remind him during each inspection that he’s not there to make someone happy; he’s there to keep someone safe.

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