EAA/Sportair's Intro To Kitbuilding Workshop

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EAA's Sportair Workshops are a series of workshops that encompass a broad range of topics - everything from TIG welding to test flying homebuilts to composite construction to covering an airplane wing with fabric. Interestingly enough, there is no central location for these classes. They all take place at various locations around the continental United States which necessitates flinging instructors and equipment at various seemingly random cities. This tends to make for an interesting schedule which at least on the surface seems to follow no organized pattern. I'm not sure if anyone envies the poor instructors that end up teaching out of a suitcase. In any case, the rather creative schedule is detailed on the Sportair website.

Local legand has it that the EAA actually bought at least some of the Sportair classes from the Alexander Technical Center, a facility in Griffin, GA. I'm not entirely sure if the purported relationship between Sportair and Alexander Tech Center is true, but it makes sense if they are related in some way -- the Sportair workshops are still taught at the Alexander Technical Center whenever they happen to be in the Atlanta area, and both organizations have programs specific to RV builders. With the Sportair workshops this takes the form of an RV building class, and with Alexander it's in the form of a builder's assistance program.

The Sportair What's Involved in Kitbuilding class is sort of the introductory class -- it isn't designed to give detailed technical information for working on any specific type of airplane. It's more designed to distribute general information to people who have heard about the concept of building an airplane and think it sounds like fun. There really isn't much in the way of prerequisite knowledge that's required. At the time I attended this class, this "newbie" status more or less described me. I was a student pilot, and although I had read a book about kitplane construction (Ron Wanttaja's Kitplane Construction), my sole experience with RVs had come from a brief ride in one a month before. This being the case, I convinced my dad to go to this class with me and we loaded up the car and headed for Atlanta. (My dad, it should be noted, wasn't a seasoned veteran at this point: he hadn't gotten his RV ride yet and was still a few days away from starting the Wanttaja book.)

Well, newbies being newbies, the first thing we did when we got there was to take a bunch of pictures of the place. Given the great proliferation of airplanes just hanging around, I suppose this wasn't at all surprising. The class didn't start until 5.15, and we arrived about an hour early, so we had time to walk around, admire airplanes and wax eloquent about our plans to build the best RV in the history of aviation.

Before we knew it, the time for class rolled around and we meandered inside to find food and other airplane enthusiasts. One of the great parts about this class is that dinner is included in the price of admission, so we met a few folks and listened to the general airplane-related banter over generous amounts of Papa John's Pizza. The guy sitting next to us was planning on building a Challenger II (which I still think is a terrific airplane) and we also met an extremely old pilot who was telling everyone within earshot how much fun slips were. As far as he was concerned, whatever these newfangled "flaps" are that they keep putting on modern airplanes are just for people who never learned how to slip an airplane correctly.

The instructor for our class was Mark Forss, who was great. Mark is one of those people that is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what he is doing, and his enthusiasm about kit airplanes infected everyone in the class. Mark qualifies as an "geek of airplanes" in best possible sense. He works for the EAA, has built and flown experimental aircraft, and is currently working on a half-completed Hummelbird that for the moment lives in his garage. (What's a Hummelbird? I wasn't familiar with that type of airplane. Apparently it's a all-aluminum, single-seat, VW-powered taildragger. See a picture.)

In the class, Mark presented most of the basic stuff that's associated with homebuilding -- various styles of airplane building (aluminum, tube-and-fabric, or fiberglass), various ways of approaching the acquisition of actual airplane parts (i.e., whether to buy only plans or a full-blown kit), and all the other options that I'm not listing here. Also Mark went over the legal ramifications of turning your garage into an airplane factory. Everyone also had time during the class to say what they were building or planning on building. There was not anyone else in the class that was thinking about an RV, which was a bit of a disappointment. There was someone planning on building a Kitfox, which was pretty cool. Mark left time (both while he was talking and then after we were done) for people in the class to ask questions, which was great. Everyone asked lots of questions and Mark was able to answer all of them well, which was impressive.

After the class was over, Mark was kind enough to take those of us that stuck around (really only me, my dad, and the Kitfox builder) on a tour of the Alexander facility. We got to see several of the RVs that were there under construction. (Photos from this little adventure are located on the same page of pictures that contain all the rest from this weekend.) One was almost done, and there was another that looked like it was almost ready to have work done on the panel. Also there was a almost-new Cirrus that was in the shop for work as someone had managed to poke a hole in the underside of the wing with a tire jack. Beautiful airplane, though - I can't believe someone would do that to it.

After admiring the RVs (and the Cirrus, too) and saying thanks and goodbye to Mark, it was time to climb in the car and head back for Huntsville.

Things that were good:

  • Pricing - this class is not expensive, and to bring an additional family member is free. This is a screaming deal when you consider that you can get you and your spouse (read: potential building partner) into the class for $25, including dinner for both of you. This class is terrific if even if you know the stuff they cover but have a family member that is interested but not familiar with the experimental aircraft world.
  • Community - it's an opportunity to rub sholders with other airplane people and compare what everyone is building (or planning to build) and why they're building it. This is obviously more interesting to people that have not started hanging around with their local EAA chapter. If you're a newbie to the community, though, this is a good way to get introduced.
  • Location - obviously this is specific to when the classes are held in Atlanta, but for me this was a great opportunity to scope out the facility in which they teach the Alexander Classes. This opportunity would not have come about if not for the general willingness of Mark Forss to show us around -- if you are taking one of these classes and you find that he is your instructor, consider yourself lucky.

Things that could have been better:

  • Aimed at Newbies - the information presented in the class is not going to be very interesting to you if you have spent any substantial amount of time interacting with the homebuilding/experimental aircraft community, or even if you've read a few books on kitplanes. If this is the case, most of the information presented in the class will be review. This is designed to be an introductory class, so this isn't really a critique, per se, it's just a caution -- if you have any amount of experience in the experimental aircraft community, just make sure that you anticipate being told stuff that you already know.

Conclusion: Good value for the money. Great if you're still trying to pick an airplane or decide if you want to build one at all.

  • This is a good class and a price absolutely can't be beat. If you're a newbie to all this sort of stuff, it is worth the $25 just to have someone answer your questions and to have a good way to introduce your spouse or friends (or in my case, a parent) to this crazy new hobby. The pizza certainly doesn't hurt, either.

Contact Information and Cost:

  • Web address: http://www.sportair.com
  • Mailing address: EAA Aviation Center, P.O. Box 3086, Oskosh, WI 54903-3086
  • Cost (at time of review): $25 per person (or $25 for two people from one family)

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