Supercon 2023: Why More Hackers Should Earn Their Wings

Hacking has taken on many different meanings over the years, but if you’re here reading these words, we’ll assume your definition is pretty close to ours. To hack is to explore and learn, to find new and (hopefully) better ways of doing things. Or at least, that’s part of it. The other part is to then take what you learned and share it with others. Do that enough, and soon you’ll find yourself part of a community of like-minded individuals — which is where things really start getting interesting.

Here at Hackaday the objects of our attention are, with the occasional exception, electronic devices of some sort or another. Perhaps an old piece of gear that needs a modern brain transplant, or a misbehaving consumer gadget that could benefit from the addition of an open source firmware. But just as there are different ways to interpret the act of hacking, there’s plenty of wiggle room when it comes to what you can hack on.

In his talk during the 2023 Hackaday Supercon, Tom Mloduchowski makes the case that more hackers should be getting involved with aviation. No, we’re not talking about flying drones, though he does cover that during the presentation. This is the real deal. Whether you want to take a quick joyride in a small plane, become a professional pilot, or even build and operate your own experimental aircraft, this talk covers it all.

Experimental Aircraft

Now, to be fair, it’s not that the act of flying a plane is somehow related to hacking. Which isn’t to say that they’re mutually exclusive, either. After all, we’re sure there’s some non-zero number of Hackaday readers who happen to also be professional pilots. But that doesn’t mean they bring a soldering iron with them in the cockpit. Probably.

What Tom is really talking about is that last bit — experimental aircraft. You see, what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers to be “experimental” may not match the mental image it likely conjures up for you. While it could technically mean some fanciful whirlybird from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, in the vast majority of cases, it’s a plane built by an individual from either a kit or published plans. In other words, while the craft might not be mass produced, there’s going to be at least a few other people who have built the thing and would probably love to meet up and talk about it.

What’s more, being the operator of an experimental plane gives you special privileges. Tom points out that for a normal private pilot, you generally can’t do much more than basic maintenance to your aircraft. Even if you own it outright, the FAA says you’re only qualified to operate the plane, not work on it. Something as simple as mounting a GoPro to the outside of your plane could get you in hot water, as that’s technically a modification to the aircraft that was never tested or approved by the manufacturer.

But with an experimental aircraft, the primary builder is able to apply for what the FAA calls a “Repairman Certificate” for that specific plane. This not only grants you the right to fix the aircraft, but to modify it as you see fit. Critically, it also gives you the authority to certify the plane to be airworthy after said modifications have been made. Essentially, it’s a license to hack your plane however you wish, with the understanding that you’re potentially putting your life on the line should one of those hacks come apart at altitude.

There are, of course, some limitations. Experimental aircraft still need to be registered with the FAA, and must apply for a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” before taking to the skies. You’ll need to keep a detailed build log and provide pictures of the aircraft during various stages of assembly to quality for this Certificate, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most hackers. Even after all that, you won’t be able to carry passengers on your experimental craft until it’s logged enough hours in a particular configuration.

Working Your Way Up

Putting the possible risk to life and limb aside for a moment, it’s clear how the idea of being able to build and modify your own aircraft could appeal to somebody with a hacker’s mindset. So the next logical question is, how do you get there?

Well, as you might expect when dealing with the Federal government, there are some hoops to jump through. Unfortunately, you can’t leap right to flying experimental planes, you’ve got to move through the various stages of getting your private pilot’s license just as if you wanted to fly a commercially built aircraft. But the good news is that the whole process is faster and easier than most people think, and as the FAA modernizes various aspects of the testing and training procedures, it’s only getting better.

As Tom explains, the process will usually start with a test flight at your local airport. A licensed pilot would be in command of the aircraft from a legal standpoint, but you’ll be able to get some hands-on time at the controls and figure out if this is really something you want to pursue. If that flight goes well, you’ll then move into your ground training period, which is essentially studying from books and videos. This part of the process will probably cost you a few hundred dollars in materials and fees, and at the end, you’ll need to pass a knowledge test.

After that, it’s time to start flying. You’ll need to spend at least 45 hours behind the controls of an aircraft before you can even attempt to pass your private pilot test, but on average, it takes closer to 70 hours before most students are confident enough to move to the next step. Incidentally, this is where things get expensive. Between the rental of the plane, fuel, and the instructor’s time, you’ll probably be paying between $150 to $200 for each one of those flying hours.

Investing In Yourself

Obviously, getting your private pilot license (PPL) is a serious commitment. Even in the best case, it’s going to take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. But once you’ve got it, you’ll be opening up a whole new world to explore. Whether you want to ultimately design and build your own plane, or just want to be able to travel around the country on your own terms, there’s plenty to be gained.

As Tom also points out, having a PPL also streamlines the process of flying commercial drones. While you’d normally have to go through training to pilot a large drone, or make money from its operation, those holding a PPL can add on a drone license by taking a simple test.

Ready to fly? The weather is warm, so why not take a drive out to your local airport and see if you can’t hitch a ride with somebody. Who knows? This time next year you might be a hacker and a pilot.

14 thoughts on “Supercon 2023: Why More Hackers Should Earn Their Wings

  1. Nice. Blessed are the US citizens, because general aviation over there is a lot easier than in Europe (if you are not a bush pilot with flashy youtube channel).

    I want to see a lot of things like facetmobiles, faures, quickies, and horten designs with new materials. Or that inflatable, flapless, but flexible Nurflugel from FESTOOL.

    1. Cheapest way to learn to fly is flying gliders. The problem is that when converting to powered flying you have to learn two things. (1) how to fly straight and level (2) how to stay awake because it is so damn boring :)

      Cost in UK is ~£30/hour plus the rest of the day helping . It is inexpensive because everybody is a volunteer helping everybody else get airborne. That includes moving aircraft, controlling launches, winch duty, cutting grass, maintenance etc. Excellent intro to real life for young adults in their early teens ;)

  2. Second getting a glider license. Cheap as dirt to fly, massively cheaper to get your license in the first place, and infinitely more fun in any regard. I was Amman we of a glider club some years ago and it was $800 a year for infinite hours in the glider. Heck you can buy a nice glider for cheaper than getting an SEL ticket these days.

    Anyone flying power for fun gets pretty burned out going for $100 hamburger at the airfield two towns over. I’ve known several SEL (single engine, land) pilots that started flying gliders and never went back. Plus since you’re flying purely for fun and sport there is no “get there-itis” to get you killed and making poor decisions due to weather is a lot less likely. It’s also quiet, view is way better and there is no fuel to set you on fire nor very many mechanical anything’s to break.

    Incidentally my glider instructor built two gliders and I remember seeing he was also the certified mechanic for them. Made sense haha.

  3. Since a kid I’ve dreamt of having a James Bond Little Nellie. Reasonably straight road for take off and landing and a commute that takes you as the crow flies. Not a bad way to make an entrance :)

  4. Initial inspiration was the BD-5. There has never since been a more sensual general aviation airplane design.

    Maintain my currency and upkeep on my trusty little SEL mostly to support my business, where I can easily service customers in a three-state area without being dependent on (increasingly) unreliable airlines.

    Aviation is not for the ill-disciplined, serendipitous mind. Focus and attention to detail, deep forethought and planning, and the ability to mentally depict your situation are all important to staying alive in the air. These traits are typical for engineers.

  5. I’ve been enamored with flight since I was 4 or 5. In my early 30s, I finally had the money to get going on my PPL here in the US. Back then, (mid ’00s) it would cost around $3k and take about 3 months. Now, nobody suggested that I go get my medical cert before starting the training, soooo… I got halfway through it only to find out that because I took medication for ADD, I was disqualified from ever getting a license (unless I ceased taking it, which wasn’t gonna happen.). I’ve flown ultralights a few times in the past and will eventually buy/build one once I find a place to keep it…. It’s kinda sorta the same thing… Only cheaper… and limited as far as speed, flight time and the whole daylight-only thing. (On my 2nd flight ever, a group of us touched down in a Walmart parking lot to get gas, heh, can’t exactly do that in a Cessna;-). )

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