The NTSB has just published its report on experimental amateur-built aircraft (E-AB). The genesis of this is the unfortunate fact that E-AB have a higher accident and fatality rate than manufactured aircraft built under CAR 3 or FAR Part 23. That should come as no surprise to anyone, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved by reasonable steps. According to the NTSB, “Experimental amateur-built (E-AB) aircraft represent nearly 10% of the U.S. general aviation fleet, but these aircraft accounted for approximately 15% of the total and 21% of the fatal U.S. general aviation (GA) accidents in 2011. Experimental amateur-built aircraft represent a growing segment of the United States’ general aviation fleet—a segment that now numbers nearly 33,000 aircraft.”
Both EAA and AOPA prefer education to more regulation, but more analysis is needed. There are a few areas where the FAA is called upon to expand regulation—specifically:
- “Revise 14 Code of Federal Regulations 21.193, Federal Aviation Administration Order 8130.2G, and related guidance or regulations, as necessary, to define aircraft fuel system functional test procedures, and require applicants for an airworthiness certificate for a powered experimental, operating amateur-built aircraft to conduct that test and submit a report of the results for Federal Aviation Administration acceptance.”
Fuel system problems which lead to engine stoppage stand out as an area where builders could exercise additional caution. I spoke with a builder friend, who is also an A&P. He noted that there is an art to getting the fuel system right. How hard could it be to run a tube from the fuel tank to the engine? Not nearly as easy as you might think—the line has to be the right size and thickness, bends have to be smooth with no kinks, absolutely no chafing allowed anywhere, obviously all fittings must be not only leak-free, but seep-proof, and there must be no way that vapor can form as temperature and altitude change. Here’s what makes a regulation a bit challenging: there are as many different fuel systems as there are homebuilts, and practically implementing this would be extremely difficult.
- NTSB has also called for requiring the FAA to review and accept a completed test plan and aircraft flight manual (or its equivalent) that documents the aircraft’s performance data and operating envelope, and that establishes emergency procedures prior to the issuance of Phase II operating limitations. This is something that the professionals always do and apparently the NTSB thinks it’s more than just good practice—it’s essential. This not only helps the original builder, but the accident data suggest there have been significant problems as E-AB aircraft move from the builder-owner to subsequent owners. The Forrest Gump-ism about life being like a box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get) isn’t a recipe for success in the aviation world. I can only imagine what it’s like to step into a new aircraft with only a vague idea of its performance characteristics. My builder friend also noted that he had built two identical aircraft that weren’t identical—they both had their own personalities. This is also true of factory built machines, but the variance is far less. Let’s be fair to say that many builders already do exactly this, but NTSB wants the FAA to mandate that good practice. Question is: does the FAA have the staffing and expertise to do this effectively? There is guidance from EAA on how to do this.
- Transition training is always a good idea. The NTSB noted that data from “…2011 accidents suggests that pilots who did not seek training were overrepresented in the accidents, and that E-AB aircraft accidents involving loss of aircraft control could be reduced if more pilots received transition training.” This is not intended to be a regulatory change.
We agree, and that applies to all aircraft, not just E-AB. The Air Safety Institute will be publishing a Transition Training syllabus that will be applicable to most aircraft later this summer and can be customized to meet the needs of any pilot while helping to improve GA’s safety record.
There much to learn from this report and it will take some time to study the recommendations to fully understand the implications. Requiring a bit more testing and documentation seems reasonable, but the question is in how it’s implemented, and do the proposed new rules impose significant burdens while only marginally improving safety. That’s always the trade-off, isn’t it?
You can read the executive Summary here:
http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/2012/EAB_Study/index.html. The full report will be published in June.