Is The Homebuilt Fleet Growing?

It’s impossible to know anything for sure about the size of the amateur-built airplane fleet. The fleet seems to be growing, but has the recession stopped or slowed growth? Are we just now feeling delayed effects of the recession?

By definition and regulation each homebuilt is unique, a one-of-a-kind airplane. No matter how complete the kit, the finished airplane is still the singular product of a builder. No matter how closely the builder follows the plans or instructions the airplane remains a unique creation in the eyes of the FAA.

Homebuilts are registered with the FAA when they receive their airworthiness certificate so that gives us some idea of how many E-AB airplanes there are. But registration numbers are a very poor measure of fleet size.

The historical problem with aircraft registration is that once an airplane was registered it remained on the roles until somebody told the FAA to remove it. It didn’t matter if the airplane was retired, stuck in a barn, rotting on a tiedown, or even destroyed in an accident, it remained registered until it was unregistered.

A couple years ago the FAA set a three-year limit on aircraft registration. Now an airplane and its N-number disappear from the registry if the owner does not re-register the airplane every three years. We are nearing the completion of the first three-year cycle so eventually the FAA will post more accurate—and much smaller numbers—of registered aircraft.

For now to gauge the size of any aircraft fleet, including E-AB, we can look at the inflated registration numbers and also the FAA’s annual survey of active airplanes. The FAA conducts the activity survey to try to determine how many airplanes actually fly, and how many hours they fly, in what kind of weather and for what purpose. The survey, like any survey, contains some error in absolute totals, but since the same survey techniques have been used for years the errors should be pretty consistent from year to year.

But there is a couple year delay in availability of both registration and activity survey data. The most recent complete listings are for the calendar year 2010 and the FAA says the 2011 survey should be complete by the end of this year.

The FAA reports that in 2008, the year the recession in general aviation began in the fall, there were 36,032 registered E-AB fixed wing airplanes. Of those airplanes the survey determined 19,767 were active, meaning they flew at least once during the year.

For 2010, two years into the recession, the FAA reports 35,717 registered E-AB airplanes and 21,270 of those were active.

The smaller number of registered E-AB in 2010 makes sense because re-registration will shrink the number of all types of registered aircraft. And the growth of 1,503 active airplanes from 2008 to 2010 is believable. That amounts to about 7 percent growth in fleet size over 2 years, which jibes with my observations.

But it seems certain that airplane homebuilding did not escape the recession and I believe it is likely that there is a delayed effect. Most E-AB projects take at least a couple of years–and most take longer than that–to complete and fly. So a person who bought a kit before the recession would not be registering it or flying it until years into the recession. Kit and aircraft plans sales almost certainly slowed during the recession but that number can’t be measured yet.

One of the few specific indicators of E-AB building is the counter on Van’s website that shows the number of RVs completed and flying. That number was 8,424 on Monday, October 14, but even that is not a complete statistic because it represents only the Vans builders who report finishing the airplane. I would think most RV builders add their airplane to the counter, but certainly some don’t.

Kit manufacturers, like the airplanes their kits become, are an individualistic lot and have no organized system to report numbers of kit sales. In fact, it would be hard to define what a kit sale is. Many builders begin by ordering a low-cost basic component of the kit such as a tail surface first. Is that a kit sale? Yes, sort of. But knowing that number would not be meaningful to help know the number of complete kits sold because not all partial kit buyers complete the purchase and the airplane. And then there are scratch built airplanes that are totally under the radar until the builder receives an airworthiness certificate. No way to even guess how many scratch building projects are in progress.

I had a chance to chat with Dynon Avionics president Robert Hamilton about the impact of the recession on E-AB and he confirmed what I believed to be true. Dynon is the volume leader in complete flat glass avionics and autopilot systems for E-AB so its sales reflect overall building activity. Robert said Dynon sales did slump during the depth of the recession but beginning this year sales are rebounding. For obvious competitive reasons Robert is not giving me absolute numbers, but he said Dynon’s sales growth for this year is solid. Some of that growth may be taking market share from other avionics makers, but Robert believes most of the increase reflects an upturn in airplane building.

Most of us think of aviation as a highly regulated activity, and in many respects it is. But in reality there is much more accurate and current data available about the number of just about any other type of vehicle and we are left to estimate the true number of airplanes. The good news that Robert confirmed for me is that E-AB is in fact bouncing back from the depths of the recession. That’s what I had hoped was happening, so it’s good to have confirmation.


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15 Responses to Is The Homebuilt Fleet Growing?

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    E-AB may well be the relief valve that GA needs? Since (A.) major manufacturers sell high priced aircraft obviously not meant for the average GA pilot, (and, I don’t blame them for going for profit – they would be foolish not to!), and (B.) FAA is in the business of frustrating GA, then (C.) experimental aircraft represent an end-around much of this headwind.

    EAA can – and does – preserve more of the freedom of GA

  2. Frank Giger says:

    You’re right in being dubious on how economics impacts homebuilt aircraft, as there is an almost random lag time between the start of construction and completion between them. Throw in that a sizeable minority of homebuilts are scratch-built without a kit and it’s a Herculean task to try to make a trend.

    What would be interesting to find out is total hours flown in active experimentals and the type (long cross country, short hops, or just local flying); my own guess is that pilots who build a plane fly the plane more than those who simply write a check for it – largely because experimentals are usually less expensive to take to the air and maintain on the ground.

    Personally, I’m pushing hard to complete my plane, as renting is just too expensive to spend any serious time in the air. Three hours renting will pay for a month’s hangar fee and twenty hours in the air in my own plane….

    • Ron Rapp says:

      Funny, I’ve always thought the exact opposite: those who buy a flying E-AB aircraft tend to put more hours on it than those who build. I’ve met a surprising number of people who seemed to enjoy building a lot more than flying. Hard to believe, but there are folks out there who will spend a year or two on constructing an airplane, and once they’ve flown it a few times, sort of lose interest. They’re already thinking about the next project.

      I’m glad those people are out there, because they’re supplying the GA world with some of the most cost-effective, high-performance, and fun-to-fly aircraft available.

  3. Phil G says:

    I was looking at buying a sonerai in 2006, I have an alert on barnstormers and noticed the number for sale has been slowly declining.

    interesting to note that only 60% of EAB are actively flying, plenty of idle planes for pilots

  4. David Dean says:

    Another factor to be considered is the ” no decision” by the FAA on the EAA/AOPA driver’s license request . This hurts LSA sales also I would guess. As long as it lingers it effects the decision process for those interested in flying experimental aircraft, and those considering the purchase of a LSA . Hopefully the leadership of both organizations will succeed in obtaining a positive decision in the near future.

  5. Andy Cotten says:

    At my home field we currently have at least 5 aircraft that haven’t flown in over ten years yet are still on the registry as valid. None are in annual and probably never will be.

  6. P.Palmer says:

    To echo the comment on out of date planes at airports, they are also taking up valuable hangar space. I don’t understand how people can just sit on a plane and pay all the fees including hangar costs and never fly. So they can brag about owning a plane at cocktail parties?

    • brett hawkins says:

      Valid point, especially if you are actively seeking hangar space for a flyable airplane. However, having been on hangar waiting lists for up to three years, I know that people who finally get renewable leases at “reasonable” rates are reluctant to give them up unless they are absolutely certain they will never fly again.

      I currently fly out of a nice little airport near a gorgeous lake in N. Idaho. Unfortunately, the reasonably-priced, municipal T-hangars don’t change hands till someone dies. Private entrepreneurs build hangars but the “free market price” is now defined by Citation owners who can spend a thousand or two a month. Those hangars sit vacant until another 1%’er decides to build a mansion on the lake. There is plenty of vacant space, and you can construct your own hangar if you want to spend the cash.

      We do have an EAA chapter. The president owns a commercial size hanger. I rent space from him at a reasonable rate. The rest of the hangar is filled with projects which may or may not fly in the forseeable future. Such is life.

    • Ron Rapp says:

      The issue of dead planes at airports taking up hangar and/or ramp space is certainly not limited to experimentals. In my neck of the woods — Southern California — airports like Compton and Flabob seem overrun with planes with flat tires, rusted airframes, and cobwebs.

  7. Curtis says:

    Very unusual article, talking about E-AB. 99% of the time its GA from Mac
    It’s being reported that EAA is down on membership and looking to go more GA to raise the membership. Mac’s blog is always about Corporate jets and GA. I guess he is the point man to steer EAA to GA.

    How soon is Sport Aviation going to be changed to “General Aviation”? We now have in Sport Aviation: Left Seat, I learned about flying from that, Lane Wallace, Accident Report, and Flashback and others.
    If I want to read FLYING I will read that magazine. I thought Sport Aviation was about E-AB.
    Let’s remember who we are EAA, Sport Aviation. GA already has a magazine, lets not have ‘Flying Redoux’ also and lose our heritage.

  8. Joby says:

    Curits, I thought E-AB was part of GA. Not something separate and different.

  9. John Ewald says:

    I like Mac’s articles and always have. FLYING used to be my favorite magazine but no longer. I guess Sport Aviation is now. I wish you “experimental” guys wouldn’t get so hot-headed about EAA going GA. Jeez, settle down.

  10. Hunter Heath says:

    Mac’s article was quite factual and relevant to EAAers. As for Sport Aviation articles on navigation, flight safety & accident prevention, weather flying, etc., a lot of the topics being treated in the magazine now are long overdue in our main magazine. E-ab flyers have failed to distinguish themselves by not getting lost, losing control in low-level maneuvring, avoiding VFR-into-IFR, or committing fatal builder errors. We need to read and heed on such failings. Also, as more and more members build highly capable, fast, cross-country airplanes, their needs more & more resemble those of GA pilots at large. I find in every issue of S.A. abundant homebuilder material, not to mention what’s in The Experimenter, Vintage Aviation, and the various blogs. In my view, EAA is splendidly serving all aviation enthusiasts. Three cheers for EAA and its enthusiastic leadership

  11. Kayak Jack says:

    Not having current market information available, I will point blank ask a dumb question. What are the possibilities for factory constructed (fully assembled) experimental aircraft to openly compete with factory built certified aircraft for sales?

    It seems to me (from just observation, not from analysis) that experimental aircraft can sell for less than similar certified aircraft. Even if there is a few month time lag between ordering and delivery, a new plane for under $100,000 would be a godsend. A viable one for under $80,000 could open up a whole new market.

    But, I may be out in left field here. Surely, Van sees the market and can figure options. He, and other manufacturers, are a lot more savvy on this question than I am. But, still . . . . . .

    • brett hawkins says:

      Until you actually construct your own airplane it is hard to comprehend how many hours it takes. Naturally, one would assume that a factory assembly line would be much more efficient, but look at Cessna. I doubt Cessna pays its general labor force more that $25 or 3o an hour but by the time it adds that labor to the cost of a new engine, certified parts and the overhead of running the company, the end product runs around $250,000 a copy for the basic model.

      The reasons homebuilding is “cheaper” is that builders write off their labor (avg 2000+ hours?), they can install used engines and props, their parts do not need to be certified, and they have no overhead to speak off. Further, they do not charge themselves a profit on the completed product.

      Believe me, if someone could figure out how to sell a factory-made RV6 with all new components for $80K and make a profit, they would already be doing it.
      Toyota or Honda might be interested, but only when potential sales run well into six figures per annum and all products liability lawyers have been exterminated.

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