Guest Editorial, Arnold Holmes On Affordable Aircraft…


My Friend Arnold is well-known to many of the people in the Corvair movement. He hosted the enormously popular Corvair College#17, he has attended many others, and was one of our earliest contributors to the movement. If you look at the first pages of our conversion manual, Arnold is in the photo with us and our Pietenpol at Brodhead 2000. We had just flown it up from Florida.

Arnold’s experience in aviation is diverse, his talents are many. A skilled pilot and an IA, he knows traditional construction, but is well-known in the high-end composite industry, having worked for outfits like Legend and Adam Aircraft. He is addressed by the moniker “The Repair,” as in “Get me The Repair!”, because he once fixed a Lancair IVP that had its tail completely severed by a helicopter which ended up embedded in the top of the cabin in a ground collision. The project was delivered ahead of schedule and on budget.

Today his shop, AvMech, specializes in high-end GA aircraft maintenance, but he still is heavily involved in working class EAA stuff, he has revived his local chapter into a hard-core building group and he regularly flies his 1,000 hour VariEze, including taking it to Oshkosh last year with his son Cody. I have been close friends with Arnold for 18 years. We don’t agree on every small point, but he is always worth hearing out. Above all else, we both agree that the day belongs to the man In The Arena, not the critic on the sidelines.-ww

Corvair College #17 host Arnold Holmes and his son Cody at Oshkosh 2010

From Arnold Holmes:

I believe that airplanes for lower economic situations already exist. They are commonly referred to as “Plans built”. Although there is no doubt that various economic factors plague the ability for blue-collar people to own aircraft, it is not a complete deterrent. I often think that other factors for owning aircraft are often overlooked. For instance, our society has generally been conditioned for “instant gratification” and as such we have left much of our hands-on craftsmanship behind for the ease of assembling a kit. Granted that kits still require craftsmanship, but when purchasing a kit you are trading your time for money.

Second, I tend to think that our own success as an organization (EAA) is also our biggest failure. If you look at Sport Aviation Magazine from the 1960′s/70′s and even deep into the ’80′s you will find a treasure trove of new/one-off designs that often times were built by people who had no engineering degree. Sport Aviation Magazine was full of this stuff every month. As you pointed out in your post, J Mac started out doing a story about a TBM (not the Avenger by the way). Complete garbage for our publication and the membership should have taken the editors to task for such tripe.

Back to the point however, the failure in our success is really that we progressively featured only the very best award winners and show planes in the magazine. I think that over the years this has cultivated a common ideology that if you did not build an award winner than you are not worthy of building anything. People have come to believe that the requirements for success are so high that the ideology itself is defeating.

Now don’t think that I advocate doing poor work or skirting safety because I don’t; however I do believe that people get so caught up in trying to be the next OSH Grand Champion that they never finish their project. In addition, sport aviation as a recreational activity has become big business. How often do we think of something that we need and instead of saying “how can I build that” we instead pull out the Aircraft Spruce Catalog or call Van’s Aircraft and use the credit card for instant gratification. This drives the cost up way beyond where it should be. I am as guilty as anybody for this kind of stuff but I try to design and build as much of my own stuff as I can.

I think that it is mostly hopeful wishing to think that some “company” of any size is going to produce a low-cost airplane for the low-cost market. Why? Economy of scale might be a good way of looking at it. Despite simple airplanes being simple, there is only so much cheap you can design in and there is only so much cheap that you can run a company on. People and vendors need to be paid fair wages if they plan to stay in business and these things alone drive the cost up significantly. The sailboats you mentioned sold 30,000 copies; at that scale you have some financial cash flow and resources to work with. A cheap airplane may sell a few thousand copies if they are lucky; when you look at total investment, cash flow issues, vendors and materials (and insurance!!) it’s simply not possible to make an airplane in today’s market that cost what a sailboat or nice car costs. Assuming that sailboats and nice cars are within the reach of blue-collar society. This of course negates the ongoing cost of owning an airplane.

Now I still believe however that a nice one or two place airplane is within the reach of the common man. The common man however has to have his expectations recalibrated. Common man needs to set aside fancy kits, splashy avionics and powerful engines if he wishes to fly. Common man needs to go back and learn how to cut tubing and learn to weld with a gas welder, no need for an expensive TIG machine. Common man needs to curl up with a nice EAA book on woodworking, if they still sell such a thing. Common man must realize that his airplane will take a number of years because he will build it from scratch, one piece at a time, stick by stick and weld by weld (or layup by layup if you’re so inclined).

This return to the old ways is how common man will have his airplane. Yesterday I was asked to service a dead battery on a new Communist built airplane. As I poked around the plane becoming acquainted with its merits I quickly come to the conclusion that it was built using the same general engineering and manufacturing methodology as the Thorp T-18. Only this Communist airplane cost about $100,000 dollars more than the nicest T-18 you could ever find. Commie airplane flies 40 kts slower and is ugly as hell and is not rated for any aerobatics. Incidentally the cost of this airplane recently floated upward some 40% from its introductory cost. Now if the largest GA manufacturing company on the planet using Commie labor cannot produce anything cheaper than $150K and having a simple sheet metal construction that any homebuilder could replicate, how would it be possible for a small startup to pull it off. I know, I know there are several angles to that argument and I look forward to your rebuttal.

Arnold Holmes
A&P 2712249 IA
Av-Mech LLC
EAA Chap 534 Pres.


In a 2006 photo, Arnold Holmes and I stand behind the engine installation on a V-8 powered Lancair IV-P. This is an EngineAir package that I helped develop from 1993 to ’98. It’s 450hp, geared, injected, intercooled and turboed, and featured air conditioning and pressurization. This is complication. Eventually, about a dozen of these took to the air. They were stunning performers. I flew from Oshkosh to Daytona Beach in three hours and five minutes in our first airplane, cruising at 29,000′. The development of this engine took the work of many clever, dedicated people, and one guy with cubic yards of money, Jim Rahm. It worked, but taught me that homebuilders at all levels tremendously underestimate the effects of complication, primarily its delays and expenses. Whenever I read discussions about electronic injection or computer controlled engines, I can tell in an instant who has no practical experience with attempting to prepare these systems for flight. Get a good look at the size of the 5-blade MT propeller. Both Arnold and I have spent a lot of time working on projects that cover the full spectrum of experimental aviation, but after two decades, we both understand that getting the working man a place In The Arena is far more challenging and important than high-end products.-ww

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