Some people restore vintage cars. Others take their hobbies a step further.
For Spokane resident and licensed pilot Jim Schindler, the Experimental Aircraft Association at Felts Field has been an invaluable resource while building his Challenger II airplane.
“It’s a hub and a repository of knowledge and experience,” he said. “Sometimes, (airplane building) requires skills that I don’t know about. It’s nice to be able to ask somebody out there questions.”
The association, with more than 150 members in Spokane, has been at Felts Field since 2001. With the proposed addition of the Historic Flight Foundation to the airport, the association is relocating to a new hangar while retaining its network of aircraft enthusiasts.
The Experimental Aircraft Association was founded in Milwaukee by Paul Poberezny in 1953 as a club for those who build and restore their own aircraft. It quickly grew to a community that includes a wide range of aviation interests. The nonprofit is headquartered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and includes more than 200,000 members and 1,000 chapters worldwide.
Experimental aircraft refers to amateur-built or light sport aircraft used for noncommercial and recreational purposes. The category also includes historic aircraft and planes used for crew training and air racing.
The association has more than 30,000 airplanes licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration that were built by members in their garages or hangars.
“When a pilot is building his own airplane, you need a support group,” said Jack Hohner, former EAA Spokane-chapter president and a current member. “The association is a huge resource that helps people get their airplanes done. I don’t think there’s a builder that can’t help them.”
Under FAA regulations, members need to build at least 51 percent of a plane for it to be registered as amateur-built. Members either purchase and assemble individual parts or buy kits from manufacturers.
About one-third of kits purchased end up in the experimental fleet, so it’s becoming a growing market, Hohner said.
“It’s a huge deal. It’s actually a big industry in itself,” Hohner said.
The cost of building a light sport airplane starts at $10,000 but can go beyond $100,000 depending on performance or add-ons.
The FAA rigorously inspects the planes, and builders are required to provide logs of construction details, supporting documents and pictures.
Schindler said it costs about $5,000 to obtain an FAA light sport license, and the association provides an affordable pathway for people who want to build their own aircraft.
“Anyone with enough money can go out and buy an aircraft. But to sit down and build one and say, ‘It’s my job to make sure it’s correct, it balances itself in air as it should and watch to make sure nothing goes haywire,’ is really something,” Schindler said. “(The EAA) is more like a craft guild. There’s some really cool folks doing some really amazing stuff.”
The organization has several educational programs for younger would-be aviators, such as the Young Eagles, a program that flies youth free of charge to spark their interest in general aviation. There’s also the Eagle Flights, a free introductory flight program for adults interested in aviation.
The EAA, in its national outreach for aviation education, brings historic aircraft to Felts Field for people to view and take flights.
Young Eagles participant Gage Bucher said he heard about the organization during a visit to an airport in Oregon. Members referred him to his local Spokane chapter to take a flight.
“And I started to get hooked on flying,” he said, adding he’s been on four flights.
EAA members typically have a background in mechanics and are mostly hobbyists, but the organization welcomes people with a general interest in aviation.
Hohner said the organization gets about two to three guests at its monthly meeting seeking information on how to build their own plane.
There’s a stigma that commercial aircraft are safer than experimental aircraft, but that’s not necessarily the case, Hohner said.
The EAA put focus on safety by improving training and is chairing the FAA’s General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, which brings new safety ideas forward through government and industry collaboration.
It also has an annual Founder’s Innovation Prize competition that aims to reduce the rate of in-flight loss and to control accidents by challenging members to come up with a solution.
EAA member Bill Abel, a Vietnam veteran with a career background in aviation, is building and restoring three aircraft in EAA’s hangar, including a Schweizer SGS 126, a 1947 Piper Super Cub and a 1929 Stinson – one of four in the U.S.
Abel said the Stinson hasn’t been flown in more than 65 years and has only 1,100 hours on it.
When the antique aircraft is fully restored, he will take it to the air.
“Once it’s all done, you get to sit in the seat of something that is all your efforts,” he said. “The planes – at that point – are brand new. That’s kind of rewarding.”