Experimental Amateur Built Aircraft & the NTSB

May 23, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

Vans RV-3

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.


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Steve Barber

    At a minimum, I would hope that any added requirements would include required recognition of existing documentation; such as is available for my YAK 52. And, further, unless there is evidence to show that all a/c using a particular system are subject to a fault inherent to that system, no regulation is to be made subjecting existing a/c to further certification requirements.

  • D N Walters

    Experimental is “experimental.” If you want to regulate “Kit Built”, that is one thing. Experimental should be left as is. The problem is in educating folks that when you step in experimental, that is exactly what it is. Folks on the low end of aviation, have abandoned certified A/C, because of overregulation causing costs to soar beyond reason, pricing them out of these A/C. We still need small, affordable, “sport/trainer’, A/C that do not cost $150,000, for “low end” GA.

  • http://AOPA Julian Smith

    We need more EDUCATION not regulation.

  • MJ Dunlap

    Now that we are well into the second hundred years of aviating, our government is working diligently to create it’s second hundred THOUSAND pages of regulation.
    Why are experimentals compared to factory built instead of experimentals that were built for military application or even commercial? What about the early racing years?
    I agree with DN Walters above. A kit should be tab A into slot B simple and predictable. An experimental should allow and reflect the imanigation and innovation of it’s creator. Provide support not another compliance mandate.

  • Gary Motley

    Safety is not a regulation or law. Safety is a mindset and and a result of education. It is not in the interest of the people of this country to allow government to regulate all aspects of our life in the belief that a select few, who frequently have no real experience with a subject, are so much more knowledgeable than the majority of those participating in an activity such as building an experimental aircraft. One can not over stress the importance of understanding the word of experimental however. Having recently completed and had “certified as airworthy” in the experimental category, I can attest that much education during and after the build is required to chase the gremlins out despite trying to build exactly as recommended by the kit manufacture. I can foresee no way to eliminate all risk in such an activity. Just because one person can build something that works well in his area or circumstance does not mean it will work exactly as planned in a different circumstance nor do the kit manufactures express such a claim. That is why it is experimental.

  • Roger Drudge

    If the NTSB is a;;owed to continue we will need helmet, air bags seat belts and so just to go to bed.

  • Roger Drudge

    If the NTSB is allowed to continue, we will need helmets, airbags, seat belts,crazy checklist and so on just to go to bed.

    Previous message had bad spelling.

  • Williaam A Hoyt

    Full power taxiing for an hour or so will reveal problems in engine performance and aerodynamic control. Additional regullations should be minimal. I built a BD-4 and flew it for 23 years with no problems.

  • Scott

    It has been my personal observation that the EAB aircraft at my home field fly far more often than the vast majority of the certified aircraft out on the ramp. I realize it is difficult to measure accurately, but the thought should be kept in mind that the statistics the NTSB mentions may be exaggerating the accident rate among EAB aircraft by discounting the potentially higher number of hours flown by those aircraft. It is not sound science to assume that because there are more accidents per aircraft in one category, that they are necessarily less reliable or more unsafe – they may simply be DOING more.

  • Larry

    The NTSB does a useful function of investigating crashes to see if there is fundamental problem with the design or procedures for an aircraft (or train or buss or bridge, etc.) that need to be fixed to insure public safety. Since no two experimental aircraft are identical (even kit built ones) they are really wasting their limited resources chasing one of a kind aircraft issues made by individuals.

    This is as silly as the FAA comparing GA pilots, who may be able to afford to fly a couple of hours a month, to airline pilots who 30 hours a week with a crew, a team on the ground for all their flight planning and support, and strict inflight procedures. DUH!

    This is a microcosm of the direction our society is heading in. Everything has to be perfectly safe and the best way to do that is for the government to regulate the living daylights out of it.

  • Jefferson C. Brooks

    As a Flight Instructor and ATP certificated pilot, for the past 25 years. This is what I know.

    E-ducation Vs Regulation
    A-dvise Vs Arrogance
    A-ttitude Vs Altitude

  • Jefferson C. Brooks

    As a Flight Instructor and ATP ( I love me) bla bla bla with multiple ratings for the past 25 years. This is what I know.

    E-ducation Vs Regulation
    A-dvise Vs Arrogance
    A-ttitude Vs Altitude

    Have Fun!

  • Stanford

    Here’s a poll. Let’s assume the FAA implements new FAR’s to address the NTSB recommendations. Please raise your hand if you believe those are the last regulations to be proposed for E-AB aircraft, and if you believe that regulations will become fewer as time goes on. Anyone?

    Flying, like walking, is inherently risky. For those of you who are not physics majors, that’s because you are moving. Safety is NOT the highest priority. If it was, we would all stay in bed all day long (without a partner). The highest priority is to achieve an objective, while understanding and possibly minimizing the risk. Sometimes that objective is just to have fun. And sometimes having fun means conciously increasing the risk of the activity.

    So maybe instead of more restrictive regulations, what we need is a placard on the side of the aircraft that lists the risk for that particular type of aircraft, compared with a widely accepted risk, such as driving a car in Washington DC (withour a chauffeur – I know that will be difficult to relate to for NTSB and FAA types, but so be it.)

    But if we’re going to do that, I insist we also do it for every new car sold. That’s right, I big ole placard right on each door telling people how likely they are to die in that car.

  • Jim Hanson

    Rather than ruin the EXPERIMENTAL nature of experimentals–let’s focus on where the problem lies, with the PILOTS not the airplanes. I’m a homebuilder–an FBO, and fly airplanes, helicopters, jets, balloons, and gliders.

    If there is an issue with experimental accidents, it is often because pilots spend so much time BUILDING the aircraft that they often don’t maintain proficiency, or bother to gain proficiency with the unique flight characteristics of the aircraft.

    If you are going to regulate–make the owner/pilot of the aircraft demonstrate that they are familiar with the systems and unique flight characteristics of the aircraft. This need not be much more than what is required on a biennial flight reveiw–in fact, the checkout would QUALIFY as a BFR.

    Possible subjects–aircraft systems–especially fuel and non-certificated powerplants. The effects of high and low wing loading. The effect of low aircraft mass on glide characteristics. A checkout like this may have saved John Denver (fuel-related in a new-to-him aircraft). As always, EAA could take a leadership role in developing a suggested checkout.

    Let’s put the emphasis on where the problem lies (pilots) and the cure for the problem (education, not regulation).

  • kevin lane

    besides accidents per flight hour, they need to address the nature of the flights. i would guess that the accident rate for high performance cars is greater than that of say, family mini vans. this doesn’t mean that mini vans are safer. i agree with education improvements.
    i will also point out there seems to be an assumption that certified planes always are “right”. the T-craft i learned in had no shoulder harnesses. the fuel tank above your knees was prone to leaking and had been fixed many times. not so in my RV.

  • Gordon Helm

    I also support education over regulation. I can see considering additional requirements for kit-built aircraft because those companies are in business to make a profit on an aircraft they have designed and produced the components to complete. While labeled experimental, they approach the level of an aircraft manufacturing company. A true experimental aircraft, built by an individual, is different. Placing unreasonable restrictions on this class of aircraft development stymies America’s Yankee ingenuity and reduces the American inventiveness that separates us from many other countries. Increasing the number of regulations and laws makes things more complicated, and many will forgo an activity if it seems too burdensome to complete. This proposed action by the NTSB, while well intentioned, seems to be more of the same. More education, please.

  • Jerry Clark

    I’ve been a CFI for 40 years and the best thing that could be done to help the experimental pilotsI know, is to allow a CFI to fly with the pilot during the 40 hour fly off. This puts an extra set of eyes on the preflight and provides a helper when recording performance data. It also provides advice from someone with more flying experience while the pilot adjusts to a new aircraft.

  • Robin Shaw

    When the Government acquired the power to “Regulate” the meaning of the word was: To keep regular and uninhibited.
    Today, “regulators” think the word means: To choke, stymie and stifle.

  • Harvey Havir

    If the FAA want more pilots to have transition training when they complete or purchase their new aircraft, they will have to figure out a system to allow pilots to pay for that training in a closely related E-AB aircraft. I am getting an RV-12 and there is only one aircraft in the entire United States (Oregon) where I was able to purchase transition training! All owners (friends?) are not instructor qualified and regulations prohibit compensation for very obvious expenses. If the FAA remains inflexible to approving a way to make transition training more available in the E-AB world, we will continue to test the pilots and their aircraft simultaneously.

  • William

    Transition training is required by insurance co.s for most pilots flying a homebuilt that they don’t have any hours in therefore there is no need for the FAA to get involved. The government can’t regulate safety , but they can regulate expermentals out of existence and that’s what they will end up doing over the years to come if they are allowed to start expanding regulations in the name of safety.

  • john

    I believe the entire GA private owned aircraft industry is over regulated and innovation stifled by FAA regulations. I do not feel that the FAA should adopt any new regulations. However, I do feel that better education for builders would be good. The FAA should create a consolidated summary of all EAB and certified type incidents and make this readily available to EAB builders. this document organized by aircraft type and system would be a very useful source of information to help builders avoid the mistakes made by others.

  • William Crowl

    I have to agree with the comments that we live in an era of regulation for regulations sake and that a select few are oppressing the many with their obsession for regulation to justify their position as regulators.

    But there is another issue that keeps escaping notice that is driving me up the wall. Accident statistics only make sense when they are converted to a ratio (rate) relative to proximal cause. It makes no sense to consider falls in the bathtub per units of toast consumed and it is silly to do so. It makes very little sense to measure aviation accidents by unit time, say flight hours and it is ridiculous to measure EXPERIMENTAL aircraft accidents by calendar year and doing so reveals an agenda.

    If the NTSB, FAA et al were serious about comparative accident rate they would measure it by flight operation (one take off, one landing) because that is the proximal cause, aircraft operation. They would also include fatalities per incident in their evaluation because this would give a clear indication of the level of hazard to the general population.

    However, this will NEVER happen because to do so would reveal that most civil aircraft including EXPERIMENTAL aircraft spend a lot of time on short hop flights or performing touch and go landings and run up flight cycles like crazy. Compare this directly to airline operation where there may be many hours between take off and landing and hundreds of people will die in a single fatal event and suddenly you have a very different “safety” statistic.

    The AOPA and EAA need to stop accepting purposefully skewed government safety statistics if they want to have any credibility with their constituencies on this issue.

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