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How To Build Your Own Plane

How To Build Your Own Plane

And why skill and craftsmanship have little to do with it
By Samia Madwar
Feb 09
From the February 2016 Issue

There’s a half-built aluminum two-seater plane in Chris Holloway’s garage, and he’s hoping to have it in the air by the summer. “Some people build airplanes because they want to build airplanes,” he says. “Some people want to build airplanes so they can fly. I fit into the latter category.” A Yellowknife-based electrician and licensed pilot, he’s worked on it for around 1,400 hours over seven years. Here’s what he’s learned so far: 

You need time

And lots of it. Like, anywhere between 500 and 2,500 hours to build the plane, plus another 25 hours or so of test flights. Although some airplane fanatics try to start from scratch, Holloway went with an airplane-building kit. The whole process sometimes feels like building a particularly irritating piece of IKEA furniture. “It’s very easy to make a mistake,” he says. “Be prepared to build something more than once.”

You can still salvage error-riddled material. Take the rudder, which Holloway had to start over on when he cut an aluminum sheet improperly. Instead of scrapping his first attempt, he refashioned it into a console that now sits in his truck and carries a Sirius satellite radio and a back-up camera. 

Phone a friend

There’s a DIY plane-building community around the world, and many post their progress online, partly because logging their work is a requirement for safety certifications. That makes it easier to share tips and tricks, and also to track down kindred spirits around the world. In 2011, while vacationing in Maui, Holloway tapped into one of those plane-building websites and found a retired Hawaiian pilot who’d built a similar model of aircraft. Next thing Holloway knew, he was in the passenger’s seat as they took the plane out for a spin. 

You need a parking spot

In the North, that’s fairly easy. For Holloway, living right on the shore of Great Slave Lake means he can attach floats to the plane’s landing gear and literally park it in his front yard. In the winter, he’ll keep it stored at the airport, a 10-minute drive away. Done. 

You need space

Holloway works out of his 3.5-by-5.5 m garage, but if he wants to put the whole plane together, he has to take it outside before attaching the wings. “That’s half the problem the last couple of years,” he says. “It’s painful to work on it. There’s just not enough room. I’ve got to find a place to finish it.” 

And that includes personal space

There are frustrating moments, and Holloway admits the project’s made him scream more than once. There’s a secret to getting through it all: “It’s not skill or craftsmanship,” he says. “It’s willpower.” The best way to deal with mistakes along the way? “Walk away from it,” he says. “Come back to it later.” Which brings us back to lesson #1…