Thousands Learn: If You Can Build It, You Can Fly It

About 28,000 amateur-built airplanes are cruising around in the sky.


LAKELAND -- You'd better love your socket set to take up Fred Bruinsma's hobby.

He spent five years tinkering, toying and toiling away on his mostly wooden homebuilt airplane, joining the tens of thousands of hobbyists who have found the skies by digging first in their toolboxes.

Bruinsma, 63, of Ontario, Canada, parked the plane on the grassy field of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport this week, joining nearly 700 other homebuilt aircraft that are part of the annual Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, running through Monday.

"It's strictly a hobby," he said of the nearly 5,000 hours spent building the plane, although the semiretired housing contractor wouldn't say how much money he spent -- or saved -- in making his own plane versus buying one ready to fly.

The financial savings can be great, though, said Charlie Becker, director of aviation services with EAA, a nonprofit aviation organization that puts on workshops and lectures at the air show, including one he leads on how to get started in homebuilding.

Anyone may attend the free workshop at 9 a.m. Saturday in Tent 4 on the grounds. Other workshops on dozens of topics take place hourly.

Becker will cover everything from building an airplane from scratch to using a kit.

One company's plane-building kit, for instance, can result in a two-seater plane that will travel 130 mph and has all most recreational private pilots will need for flying, Becker said.

It can be finished in about 750 hours of work with $25,000 out of pocket.

An equivalent plane bought ready to fly, he said, would go for about $90,000.

"The advent of kits has made it really doable," he said.

But plane-building isn't for everyone, he stresses.

It typically takes 1,000 to 1,500 hours to build a plane -- too much time for most people to invest unless they really enjoy what they are doing.

He guesses nearly half the plane-building projects that get started never are finished because people who are ill-suited for the task take it on.

"If you are building for the end result," he said, "it's a mistake."

If not for the plane, then what?

"If you are not in love with the process [of building it], you're better off to go buy one," he said.

Becker said there are about 28,000 amateur-built planes in the skies now, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the planes flown by recreational private pilots.

Planes built by "amateurs" are not under the same Federal Aviation Administration scrutiny as commercial-built planes, so unique designs, "experimental" features and cutting-edge technology have become big expectations in homebuilt circles.

Some pilots build "from scratch" with plans in hand, while others take the simpler route of building from a kit.

Regardless, the numbers are climbing, and hundreds of homebuilt planes are flying at Lakeland Linder this week.

Said Becker: "The days of this being an unusual hobby are gone."

The air show continues today with tens of thousands of onlookers descending on the airport, many in their own planes, to see the newest gadgetry aviation has to offer.

Some will shop for new planes, taking them for test flights, while others will simply pass through the sprawling grounds looking, reminiscing about the days they may have flown a warbird or an Army helicopter.

For the first time this year, onlookers will be able to go onto the flightline, where planes are parked, for a closer look.

Aerobatic shows are daily from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission costs vary day-to-day.

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