Experimental or Production?

by anandeep on December 05, 2006 03:33pm

There's two things people figure out about me (mainly because I tell them!) - one that I am crazy about airplanes and two that I love stirring controversy! And in this blog I get an opportunity to bring those two favorite things together.

There are two kinds of light or General Aviation airplanes out there - the "production/certified" airplanes (referred to as "Spam Cans") and "homebuilt/experimental" airplanes. 

You probably have heard of the manufacturers of the "Spam Cans" - they have names like Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft.  These are large companies with lots of engineers who mass produce airplanes and sell them to you if you part with large sums of money. They also give them to you in any color as long as it it's creamish. These are faithful, reliable if boring airplanes. Nothing wrong with them but they are not fun. They also make a lot of compromises in speed, manueverability, weight carrying ability or runaway length requirements - and usually don't excel in any of those criteria. They are the airplanes every commercial enterprise uses though. Almost everybody learns to fly in them. Some of them are bush planes in Alaska and Africa and are the lifeline of a lot of people there - nothing to sneeze about! Below is a picture of a Cessna 150 (my ex-airplane) that I used to build up hours and tour the Pacific Northwest. One of the "Spam Cans" but beloved nevertheless.

Then there are people who accept no compromises. They decided they didn't want to accept hired engineer’s opinion of the best design. They went to work designing their own planes and then offering plans or kits so that other people could build them.  One of the early pioneers of this was Burt Rutan, now famous as the designer of the first private spaceplane  "Spaceship One", who offered a kit for an airplane christened "VariViggen" that had its tailplanes in front (in a configuration called a "canard"). It could go faster than any production plane on much less power and was stall proof- which meant that it was a lot safer than the regular planes. The other success story is Richard VanGrunsven - whose company "Vans Aircraft" has built a family of aircraft called "RV"s (there is still some debate as to whether that means "Recreational Vehicle" or "Richard VanGrunsven"). As of the time of writing there were 4861 RVs built and flying - more RVs ship every year than any commercial light plane manufacturer in the world can produce! These aircraft are  speedier, more manueverable, have better weight carrying ability or have less runaway length requirements than comparable production aircraft with the same horsepower. These planes are known as “homebuilts” or “amateur-built” or “experimental”.  The “experimental” title comes from the placard that they have to exhibit by law – this is also the placard all manufactured planes and military aircraft have to exhibit till the time they get certified by the FAA.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircraft is an experiment in progress.

Ok -where's the controversy? I am saying that the Open Source Software movement is like the experimental aircraft movement and make an assertion that commercial software companies are like production aircraft companies.

After all there is a community among experimental builders that rivals the OSS community. They share ideas freely, give each other plans for improvements and are very loyal and committed to the cause. One instance of such a community is "Van's Air Force".  These communities and the experimental manufacturers also are on the cutting edge of technology, pioneering  cheap "all glass" computer screen instrumentation in light planes among other things. Like Linux, most successful experimental aircraft have a solid “kernel” that is built and maintained one way but like Linux the “distributions” abound based on builder’s personal preferences. For instance from the very successful Vans RV-4 came the Harmon Rocket.  Ubuntu and RedHat aren’t THAT different! J

But its not all applehood and mother pie.  Building these airplanes (even if you do all the work yourself) is not much cheaper than buying a general aviation airplane. You do have to build them to get all the advantages and it is considered a truism in the community "build if you like to build, buy if you like to fly!". Which means that it takes serious commitment to build one of these things and you better take a lot of pleasure in just the act of building. Of course, you could buy one of these already built, but would you trust the builder? Build quality is very variable! Certification standards are conservative and lengthy for a reason - a small variation can result in a catastrophic outcome. These aircraft are also more demanding to fly than the boring old "Spam Can".

I fly a Cessna 182 for the Civil Air Patrol - and I wouldn't want to fly an experimental airplane that I myself hadn't built. (Even if I built one - would I?).  Because we fly in the mountains with heavy loads (survival gear, direction finding equipment, and individuals who are - shall we say - "weight challenged"). I know it won't do things spectacularly but will do its standard thing as long as I follow the manual. Its heavy on the controls, isn't that fast and has a high fuel consumption - but it can carry a heavy load and land in a reasonable distance. And I can be sure that all the improvements that Cessna has mandated have been incorporated, since it would be illegal not to. Not so for the experimentals since the builder not the kit manufacturer is the legal manufacturer and can make his own decisions! It isn’t the “experimental” placard that scares me, its’ the fact that I would have to form a judgment on my own on every INSTANCE of what is fundamentally the same design.

Am I taking the analogy too far? To be truthful, I don't know - but it is certainly worth thinking about!

Now if you send e-mail to Sam Ramji telling him how much you liked this blog - I might be able to afford a house in the Puget Sound Area and this RV-8 kit that I want at the same time! 🙂

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