Be Your Own Mechanic — The Secondhand Homebuilt Aircraft Owner’s Guide to Maintenance

By Lisa Turner, EAA 509911

This story first ran in the August 2018 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

Scott slid into the cockpit of the two-place Kolb Mark III after getting a nod from the owner. He looked at the custom avionics panel above him – breaker switches neatly aligned within easy reach were joined by master and ignition switches, ammeter, fuel quantity, oil pressure, and Hobbs meter. The center console contained the latest Garmin electronics.

“Exactly what I’m looking for,” he said to the Kolb owner. “But if I buy this, will I be able to take care of it?”

“Anyone can maintain an experimental,” the owner said.

“Well, sure, if they know what they are doing,” Scott said.

Secondhand homebuilts can be a great way to go if you don’t have the inclination to build one. But, if you didn’t build the plane, will you know how to take care of it? Each homebuilt is unique and much less standardized than certified aircraft that are built on assembly lines. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does add more work to developing inspection checklists and understanding the quirks that specific aircraft may display.

There is an argument that as the owner of your own airplane, you will actually be the best person to maintain it, assuming you have the skills or are willing to acquire them. As the owner and pilot, you are not likely to shortcut any maintenance procedures or skip inspections. As the owner, you will learn how to take care of all of the systems in your airplane, and you’ll learn its idiosyncrasies and special characteristics. You will have the ability to sense when something is wrong, often ahead of any adverse event.

What the Regulations Say You Can Do

 As a secondhand experimental amateur-built (E-AB) owner, you can perform all of the maintenance on your aircraft and make the logbook entries. But the condition inspection, which is done once a year, must be signed off by an A&P mechanic or by the holder of the repairman certificate for that specific airplane. If the original builder did not get the repairman certificate, they cannot sign off your condition inspection, no matter how competent they are.

It’s a little different if your new experimental aircraft is an E-LSA, or experimental light-sport aircraft. In that case, you can attend a two-day class and obtain the repairman certificate for your specific airplane. The certificate will allow you to conduct and sign off on the condition inspection.

If you bought an S-LSA, or special light-sport aircraft, your aircraft must be maintained by FAA-certified mechanics, with the exception of some preventive maintenance. What you can do is specifically defined by the manufacturer in the maintenance and inspection procedures manual provided with that specific aircraft. Typically the owner is allowed to inspect items and add fluids but not much else.

Finally, new owners of an experimental exhibition aircraft can follow the same rules as for an E-AB listed above.

Second Owner Traps and Tips

Missteps on the secondhand homebuilt path can cause misery and unanticipated surprises. Here’s how to avoid these gotchas.

Get a prebuy evaluation from someone knowledgeable. Often the builder group will have a name at hand, or the manufacturer will know someone. If you don’t get a prebuy, you could find serious hidden problems later.

Ask the owner to spend time with you on what inspection procedures were used and to show you any anomalies the aircraft exhibits. Even if the owner is not the builder and has not done the maintenance, you will pick up important information. Skipping this step might deliver some unpleasant surprises later.

If the owner is also the builder and has the repairman certificate, ask if the builder will supervise your first condition inspection and sign it off. Arranging this as part of the sale will deliver multiple benefits that include both an increase in your education level on the aircraft and not having to find an A&P willing to do the inspection.

Many A&Ps are not familiar with the world of experimental aircraft. It’s not their fault — it’s just not an area they studied. If you decide to get help or a signoff for your condition inspection, realize that you may need to educate the A&P. I have not met an A&P who didn’t appreciate this extra education.

Work with EAA technical counselors and flight advisors. These volunteers can help you understand your secondhand homebuilt and provide advice on inspection and flight procedures.

Picking the Right Resources

Deciding how to improve your wrenching skills may be difficult in the face of competing resources. Persevere. We all live in a world with limited time and lots of responsibilities. We are constantly making decisions about priorities and schedules.

If the idea of maintaining your secondhand homebuilt excites you, don’t let the busy pace of each day deter you from learning how to be an aircraft mechanic. It can be as simple as taking an online course to learn how to do your own preventive maintenance, or you can attend A&P school. The in between is loaded with information, from EAA webinars and Hints for Homebuilders to independent training providers. Choose the resources that fit your learning style and available time. One of EAA’s current Homebuilt Aircraft Council members said his recent A&P class included a substantial cross section of EAA’s Hints for Homebuilders. The Hints videos are that good.

If you love working on airplanes, you may want to go for the light sport repairman certificate with a maintenance rating, which qualifies you to work on, inspect, and sign off condition inspections on all light-sport aircraft in a given class, depending on your training. With an LSA maintenance certificate, you can even open up shop doing inspections for others.

Want to become an A&P? As an A&P, you do not need an IA (inspection authorization) to sign off condition inspections for experimental aircraft. But the path to an A&P rating can be a long and time-consuming one. You must get 18 months of practical experience with either powerplants or airframes, or 30 months of practical experience working on both at the same time. As an alternative to this experience requirement, you can attend an FAA-approved aviation maintenance technician school. If you enjoy the thought of doing this, then you may end up with a new and exciting career as well as being able to maintain and sign off your homebuilt.

I talked to Carol Carpenter at Rainbow Aviation Services about the company’s LSA maintenance classes. Carol and her husband, Brian, team teach their workshops and write the Technically Speaking column in the Experimenter section of EAA Sport Aviation. I asked Carol to tell me about the people who take their two- and 15-day classes for E-LSA and S-LSA category aircraft.

“The two-day class attendees want to be able to get the repairman certificate for their E-LSA airplanes,” she said. “After taking this class, they can obtain a repairman certificate for any E-LSA they own and sign off the condition inspection.”

“What’s really amazing, though, is that 70 percent of the people who take our 15-day course — and this is a serious maintenance class — are there because they want to improve their knowledge and ability,” she said. “About 25 percent are there to become qualified commercial light-sport mechanics.”

Carol said she agrees with the notion that an owner, equipped with skills, will be one of the airplane’s best mechanics.

“They tend to take the time to do it right,” she said.

Scott and I continued our conversation after his cockpit climb in the Kolb.

“So what do you think?” Scott asked. “Should I jump in with both feet on a secondhand homebuilt, even though I didn’t build it or know a lot about taking care of it?”

“Absolutely, yes,” I replied. “I can see you’re in love with the airplane, it’s a great deal, and you’ll get a prebuy inspection to make sure the build is solid. You love getting your hands on things, so you should learn fast.”

Scott beamed, barely containing his excitement.

“If you’re serious about the Kolb, here’s my advice,” I said. “Spend time with the builder learning inspection procedures and what to look for. Write up checklists. Dig into the maintenance manuals and learn all you can. Then use resources from EAA, the FAA, your EAA chapter, and builder group to learn about each system and where the critical areas are. Consider going to a hands-on class that will show you, at a minimum, how to do inspections, change oil, check compression and engine timing, and change spark plugs. Even though the hands-on LSA repairman certificate classes pertain to LSA, they deliver a wealth of information for any light aircraft.”

“What a terrific journey,” Scott said. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and now I have the confidence to do it.”

Maintenance and Inspection: What the Regulations Say About Who Can Do What

Experimental and Light-Sport Aircraft

  • Experimental Amateur-Built Aircraft (E-AB)

Title 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 21.191. If you build the majority of the airplane, then you can apply for and receive a repairman certificate for that specific aircraft. This allows the builder to sign off the condition inspection. The certificate is not transferable. Anyone can do the maintenance.

  • Experimental Light-Sport Aircraft (E-LSA)

Title 14 CFR 91.319. Anyone can do maintenance on an E-LSA, but only the holder of a repairman certificate (or an A&P) can sign off the condition inspection. The owner can take a two-day class to obtain the certificate for that specific aircraft from the FAA.

  • Special Light-Sport Aircraft (S-LSA)

Title 14 CFR 91.327. S-LSA are built and ready to go. The manufacturer determines who can work on the aircraft and what they can do. S-LSA manufacturers typically require FAA-certified mechanics, an LSA repairman maintenance rating, or FAA repair station for maintenance and inspection. Some owner preventive maintenance is spelled out in the procedures manual for the specific aircraft. An S-LSA can be transitioned to an E-LSA, but it’s a one-way street.

Ratings and Certificates

  • LSA Repairman Inspection Rating

This rating allows you to conduct the condition inspection on an E-LSA you own. It requires the successful completion of an FAA-accepted, 16-hour course on inspection procedures.

  • LSA Repairman Maintenance Rating

The maintenance rating is a 120-hour commercial rating that allows you to maintain, repair, and perform the condition inspection on all light-sport aircraft within the class of aircraft shown on your certificate. This light-sport rating does not apply to E-AB homebuilts.

  • Repairman Certificate for an E-AB

The builder of an E-AB experimental aircraft may show the FAA evidence of the build and obtain the repairman certificate for that airplane. It is not transferable.

  • Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Mechanic

An FAA-certificated mechanic who can work on and sign off S-LSA, E-LSA, and E-AB, as well as standard category aircraft. An A&P does not need an inspection authorization to sign off experimental aircraft.

NOTE: The details on who can do what can be found in the operating limitations carried in the specific aircraft along with the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate.

Lisa Turner, EAA 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, technical counselor, flight advisor, and former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is currently restoring a Waco UPF-7 with her husband. Lisa is a member of the EAA Homebuilt Aircraft Council and Women in Aviation International. For more from Lisa, read her Airworthy column each month in EAA Sport Aviation.

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