Get 'er Done Yourself Airlines
The age of invention has never ended for builders of experimental aircraft. AeroCrafters of Alabama LLC, in Gadsden, serves this daring niche with sound advice and FAA licensing.
Tim (left) and Mike Owen help customers take to the skies in do-it-yourself aircrafts.
photo by Marc Golden
If building your own plane sounds exciting but just a tad more than your nerves can handle, AeroCrafters of Alabama LLC may be just what you need.
Brothers Tim and Mike Own created their Gadsden business to help aircraft hobbyists take to the skies.The sons of an airplane mechanic, the Owen brothers grew up in Steele, where they spent many afternoons taking their bicycles apart and putting them back together again. Tim Owen, 52, recalls one year when the brothers built their own go-kart.
“That go-kart had rope steering and no brakes,” says Owen. “We used to ride it down this long, steep hill. It had steel wheels, and when you turned it, it would slide and people told us they could actually see sparks flying from those wheels. It’s a wonder we didn’t get killed.”
Years later, in 1981, Owen enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as an airplane mechanic. After leaving the service in 1984, Owen and brother Mike, 45, eventually landed work at Pemco Aeroplex Inc. in Birmingham—Tim as an operations mechanic and Mike as a sheet metal mechanic. Besides working at the factory, Owen says he also began teaching classes in basic electricity and aircraft systems part time at the Albertville Aviation Training Facility.
“Students started coming up to me to discuss these [airplane] kits that they were having problems with,” says Owen. Finally, one student asked Owen to help him build his airplane.
Owen says he soon got the idea to start a business helping other pilots build their own airplanes. Owen asked Mike to partner with him, and in March 2011, they opened AeroCrafters of Alabama LLC. They invested $25,000 of their savings to start, but they continued working at Owen’s home to save on overhead.
“The business grew faster than I thought it would,” says Owen. “It came to a point where we ran out of room.”
Last February, the brothers moved into a 6,400-square-foot hangar at Gadsden’s Northeast Regional Airport. They spent approximately $30,000 on the move and additional equipment, Owen says.
Many hobbyists like AeroCrafters’ clients prefer building their own aircraft because the federal regulations for “experimental” airplanes are looser than for manufactured aircraft. Builders also can customize their homebuilt airplanes to make them lighter and faster, enjoy the satisfaction of building their own aircraft and save money. According to EAA, the cost of a homebuilt airplane can run from $5,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the specifications desired by the builder. By comparison, a new, factory-built, single-engine plane can cost $150,000 or more.
AeroCrafters’ clients pay a monthly fee of $2,500, which covers the cost of storage in the facility and insurance for their kits. They have access to all the equipment and tools and are given all of the hardware needed to complete the project. They also receive advice and guidance from the Owens as they work.
Tim Owen says that they talk continuously to clients about safety, FAA regulations and the importance of never doing anything halfway. The average client, says Owen, completes a project in about 10 months.
“If they were trying to build by themselves, it would be really slow,” says Owen. “We give them guidance and help them to understand why we do what we do, such as why you have to put in so many rivets here or what size bolt you have to put in.”
The Owens say they carefully document each client’s work and the amount of assistance they give their clients in order to stay within the FAA’s “51 percent rule.” The rule states that an owner/builder must build at least 51 percent of their airplane by themselves to be FAA certified as “experimental.”
Owen says the AeroCrafters’ hangar can accommodate up to five builders at one time. Four builders completed their kit planes last year, and three have projects going on this summer.
The brothers often work 12-hour days and keep their hangar open on weekends, since most clients can only come on Saturdays or Sundays.
“The clients come from all walks of life,” says Mike Owen. They come from across the state and as far away as Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. More than 90 percent have military backgrounds, says Tim Owen.
Many clients have come by word of mouth, he says. But their marketing efforts have included a trip to the Sun ‘n’ Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Fla., last March and placing ads on Barnstormers.com.
The ad, says Joe Lovett of Athens, is how he found AeroCrafters. Lovett is building a single-seat sport airplane from a kit. He has been working on the project for eight months and says he is on track to finish this fall.
“Having never built one before,” says Lovett, “there are just a lot of little things that might not be hard after you’ve done it once. But that first time, you want some guidance and to be able to ask questions. I like that they have experience and that they really know the 51 percent rule and the FAA regulations.”
Completed airplanes must pass an FAA inspection to be certified as airworthy and undergo a test flight. While some clients hire test pilots, others test their airplanes themselves, says Owen.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the FAA encourage owners, builders and pilots to get flight test training before conducting test flights of their experimental aircraft.
The Owens say they urge clients to get specialized training in the kinds of airplanes they are building before they fly them, because the aircraft may maneuver differently than the factory-built planes that they’re used to flying. The Owens say clients sign waivers against liability and a statement on their website says, “the builder/owner has complete responsibility of assembly, inspections, registration, and operation of the aircraft at all time.”
Watching clients succeed and fly in their new airplanes is one of the most gratifying parts of their job, says Tim Owen.
“There is satisfaction in what we’ve accomplished,” says Owen. “You see what they have done, starting from just a box of parts, and when a customer takes off, he’s just tickled to death. They’re just like a little kid.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.