Are Experimental Airplanes Really That “Experimental?”

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This Cessna started life as a Lancair kitplane

Are experimental airplanes really that “experimental?”


This article may seemed biased toward experimental airplanes, but I want to provide some perspective for folks that have otherwise never considered an experimental as a viable option. For the record, I am not anti-Cessna or Piper. I love all airplanes!

One of the things that have helped keep general aviation alive, especially within the last 20 yrs, has been the proliferation of experimental aircraft. For the purpose of our discussion, experimentals, homebuilts, and kitplanes are synonymous.


Cessna Corvallis

Although, experimentals  have been around essentially since the beginning, you should consider the Wright Flyer a homebuilt aircraft, they are often thought of as scary, frankenstein-type airplanes that mortals fear.

The reality is that a large portion of experimental airplanes are quite conventional. Today many of them have the latest technological advances and safety enhancements including; EFIS, digital autopilots, ballistic recovery systems, inflatable seat belts, collision avoidance, terrain and ground proximity  warning systems,  to name a few. This stuff exceeds the capabilities of most jets flying in the stratosphere today.

But aren’t they hard to fly?  Well it depends, but most of the popular kits do not have any adverse flight characteristics. They differ from many production airplanes because they generally handle better and offer better performance, but the law of natural selection will weed out poor performing kits. Often it looks conventional, it probably flies conventional.

Common sense – some homebuilts are more EXPERIMENTAL than others

If experimentals are so great why do people fly production airplanes?
Good question. There are many good reasons to have a store-bought airplane over an homebuilt.
Here are a few.

  • I need to fly for hire. You can’t do that with an experimental.
  • There are no experimentals that fit my mission. Twins are a good example.
  • I do not want to build an airplane and I don’t trust someone else outside of the factory to do that either.
  • My local mechanic won’t maintain and/or inspect an experimental.
  • I like the peace of mind that comes with a production airplane over one that was not type-certified.

So experimentals may not be for everyone, but they do provide a valuable impulse to general aviation. Let’s look at the pros.

  • More bang for the buck. Whether you build it or buy it, without exception experimentals of equivalent age and equipage are cheaper than their certificated counterpart.
  • I can do my own maintenance. This is regardless of who built it, but only the builder or an Authorized Inspector (AI) can do the annual condition inspection.
  • Tailored for you. Since you are building it, the airplane should be exactly how you want it.
  • Wider variety. There are many more experimentals types available than production airplanes (single-engine).
  • Generally higher performance. The experimental designers are not constrained by the FAR Part 23 certification criteria so they can build it lighter and faster. Caution here; as an example, a faster airplane might also mean the it stalls at a higher speed. It doesn’t make the airplane unsafe, but you need to be trained and proficient. Certified airplanes, as a general rule, are built very conservatively due to product liability concerns.

Now I wouldn’t recommend someone who has never flown a high performance airplane to go out and buy a Lancair Turboprop, but then again I wouldn’t recommend they get a Piper Meridian either. Common sense needs to prevail and this is especially true if you plan to buy or build an experimental.

As of this writing there are over 33,000 experimental aircraft flying in the United States.  This represents just under 10% of the U.S. general aviation fleet and that ratio has been steadily climbing.

In speaking to one of my friends about the RV line of kitplanes he said, “Well with 7000+ RVs flying, I think the experiment is about over.”  Good point indeed.

 If you have a question, please feel free to comment below or email privately. I would gladly provide my expertise.


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