Do Not Fly Zenair CH601XL and CH650!

November 19, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

ZenairThe more thorough review on the Zenair CH601XL and CH650 is now complete by FAA. Based on what we have learned at this point, the prudent action would be to not fly the aircraft until FAA’s recommendations have been fully complied with. For those just joining the conversation, the S-LSA, and E-LSA version of this aircraft have suffered an alarming number of in-flight breakups. The latest occurred November 6th resulting in one fatality.

I blogged on this last spring, “Light Sport Breakups” and the FAA just released a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin that stops just short of grounding the aircraft. The areas of concern: Wing Structure, Structural Stability, Flutter, Airspeed Calibration and Stick Force Characteristics. Any one of these should be cause for concern – collectively and given the extreme number of accidents – you can draw your own conclusions.

I hasten to point out that the safety record of S-LSA (Factory Built models) is not out of line and with the exception of the Zodiac, there has been only one other in-flight breakup that I’m aware of.

According to Zenair, there is a fix and it will be up to FAA to determine if it’s adequate. Usually, it’s pilots that are operating outside a reasonable flight envelope that brings grief. Based on FAA’s and NTSB’s review, there are some serious design issues with these aircraft and operators should voluntarily ground them until all of the problems are addressed.

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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59 Responses to “Do Not Fly Zenair CH601XL and CH650!”

  1. Doug Norman Says:

    I’m surprised at the poor reporting and sensationalism found in your article. As an AOPA member for over 25 years, I expect better.

    You used a sensational headline for something that’s 10 days old – not breaking news at all. What was your intended purpose for this? – not very professional for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation…

    Your article (dated 11/19) incorrectly states that the last accident was last Friday (11/13) – it was 11/6. Yes, you might think that the particular date isn’t really germaine as there was another accident after all. But it is. Those of us who are deeply affected by this are VERY sensitive to dates and circumstances. For us it is a big deal. For others not directly involved it simply pours more fuel on the fire unecessarily. (check basic facts before publishing an article!)

    You claim the SAIB was “just released” – this was released more than 10 days ago… see previous comment.

    “According to Zenair, there is a fix and it will be up to FAA to determine if it’s adequate” This is completely falacious. No single “fix” has been identified or prescribed because no single cause has been identified. What has been done consists of a comprehensive Upgrade Package to significantly beef up the plane. Take a look at the drawings. If you can’t find them, I’d be happyt to help. And, Zenair has been on constant contact with the FAA on every aspect of the re-engineering. This has been ongoing for the past several months.

    The FAA has already specifically stated (in the SAIB) that S-LSA owners are to follow AMD’s Safety Alert / Safety Directive (released on the same day as the SAIB) which prescribes this comprehensive Upgrade Package.

    There has been one in-flight breakup involving an AMD S-LSA – others were Experimental (amateur built), ultralight, or from other manufacturers

    Yes, there’s something afoot. Somewhere the design and operational factors are aligning for these unfortunate outcomes. But, as stated, it is being addressed through a redesign of the wing internals, the carry-through, and the fuselage tie-in.

    As an AMD owner I’d be happy to answer your questions from my point of view and from my experiences. I just ferried my airplane to AMD for the mods; and while there i got to see what is being done. You might give them a call; or perhaps go down there and see for yourself. I think you’d be impressed. At least take a look at the mod drawings and the engineering testing. Speak from knowledge.

    I would hope that AOPA’s ASF would help change the dialog in the areas it can help: pilot training and safety. Myself, I’m trying to augment this by starting a blog ont he zenith.aero site which focuses on flying the Zodiac.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the ASF should be about rationale, reasoned discussion. And I believe you generally are; but this didn’t make the grade. The story here is the availability of upgrades which will significantly increase the margin of safety – regardless of the original causes; real or imagined. The call should be to ensure that the E-AB owners make the changes to increase the safety margins. They’re the ones possibly least likely to do it; or to pick-and-choose among the modifications found in the Zenair engineering drawings. Don’t pick and choose. The designer has started at the ailerons and moved inwards to the fuselage tie-in created a systematic whole. There’s the second part of the story: make all the mods.

    For the SLSA owners, there’s no question; all mods will be done or the airplane doesn’t fly.

    Please consider doing another, better, coverage of this very difficult time for us Zodiac owners. When done, this will likely be the most analyzed and tested SLSA in the fleet. Will other makes be able to make the same claims?

    Doug Norman, CFI, AGI
    AOPA 05941780 (since 1984)

  2. Stephen Wilson Says:

    Good luck Bruce. You just said something bad about an airplane — not a popular move.

    I brought this up on my blog back in April. Click my name, above, to read it.

    There will be safe LSAs, yet the majority are not designed, tested or manufactured to the same standards of Part 23 certified aircraft. Buyer beware.

  3. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Doug….

    Thank you for your response. It’s good to hear alternative views. You are, understandably, very close to the issue. Based on the information we have received from FAA and NTSB, there is very definitely ” something afoot” and when it comes to airframe integrity a positive response is called for.

    The S-LSAs are grounded and E-LSA model owners should follow the same recommendations. There will be divergent views on that, although I spoke to several homebuilders, who noted that they would voluntarily ground themselves until the problem was identified and resolved.

    We will be doing a far more extensive review – most likely in the February issue of AOPA PILOT and Zenair will have their opportunity to provide input.

    Steve…..

    Thank you for your comments, as well. Let me be clear the LSA, both E and S versions, have had a good safety record and there have been few, if any, airframe integrity issues other than this model of Zodiac.

    Your comment regarding Part 23 standards is correct. LSAs are not Part 23 aircraft – nor were they intended to be. Are they unsafe as a group? No.

  4. John Chastain Says:

    Bruce, what’s with the sensational headline for this article? The Zenith grounding is 2 weeks old by now and the structural upgrades have been tested and the improvements are currently in the final design and factory implimentation stages.
    How about a little more positive swist to this serious issue for all Zenith owners. I would expect your treatment more from a local 2 bit paper or perhaps USA Today. Not from one that represents pilots and aircraft owners in safety matters.
    How about you learning a little more about this issue and then publish a serious and factual acticle that will advance the safety concerns of LSAs.
    But a headline with an exclamation point for an issue that’s been going on since April. You can do better.

  5. Younis Forsyth Says:

    Bruce,

    Most importantly, my thoughts are with the families that have lost loved ones in these accidents.

    N117FA is the AMD Zodiac CH 650 LSi that was featured at 2008 AirVenture. This aircraft was purchased to provide Sport Pilot training in Maryland. I took delivery of the plane last August and the business was doing very well until the impact brought on by the recent grounding of the Zodiac by AMD.

    I had interpreted previous communications by the company spokespersons that these were isolated incidents not related to the structure of the aircraft. With this recent announcement, my school is out of business and my students are greatly impacted. The nearest schools offering Sport Pilot training are at least an hour drive away. In the past two weeks, I have had to contact my other instructor and all of our students and let them know that our Aircraft is grounded. I had to cancel all introductory flights that were scheduled. I had to notify our future students who were in the middle of the TSA process that I would not be able to offer them training. I had to turn away new customers.

    I contacted the factory who gave me a quote of approximately 80-100 hours labor at an estimated cost of $5000 for the factory to make the modifications. I would then have to get in the queue for repairs and arrange to have it trucked down to Georgia at an additional $1000+ expense. My local FSDO would not issue a Ferry Permit for this aircraft. After speaking to someone at the FAA closer to the subject I was informed they are working on the requirements that need to be met for a ferry permit to be issued. It appears that some Zodiac owners have been able to obtain this permit. Regardless of that fact, I now would not be able to use a ferry permit as I received notice this week of insurance changes regarding my in-flight coverage on the Zodiac.

    Quotes from a local repair station and A&P are in the $6400 to $8000 range plus the cost of the kit and any consumables not included with the kit. When the repairs are completed, I will not have in flight insurance coverage to fly the plane home.

    After much consideration, I have determined it is in my best interests to sell the Zodiac. Many people have been affected by this and I wish everyone the best of luck with their upgrades. We will be watching closely to see how the situation progresses.

  6. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    John…..

    What is troubling is that the most recent loss occurred months after the issue was supposedly ” widely known” in the Zenair community. If I overstated the risk or drew attention to it – guilty as charged.

    Also please see my previous response. “We will be doing a far more extensive review – most likely in the February issue of AOPA PILOT and Zenair will have their opportunity to provide input.”

    Younis… There will be many economic casualties in this and let us fervently hope there are no more injuries/fatalities . Thank you for taking such a responsible stance.

  7. Steve Wiley Says:

    Bruce, I have no problems with your story or headline. It is plainly clear that the only ones who do, are those affected by the purchase and/or operation of what is now known to be an unsafe aircraft. In the world of aviation, 10 days or a few weeks doesn’t make a difference, and when the scope of the problem is this large – calling it breaking news is appropriate. If you want to start nitpicking – grab a set of Zenith wing plans and get to it…

    This poor aircraft design – let’s call it what it is – is an unmitigated disaster for anyone who now owns the SLSA version of this airplane. After viewing the videos that Zenith is producing as it completes the upgrade to the factory demonstrator – one thing is clear: It is very labor intensive. It will probably cost north of $10,000 to effect repairs if you are not allowed to do the work yourself (SLSA). Finding someone willing to do them and take on any potential liability is questionable. And regardless of fix or no fix, your resale value is shot.

    If you own an ELSA version of this plane but you did not build it (you bought it used), you also cannot do the work. ELSA versions of this airplane are just as cursed to anyone building or flying it, as it’s effectively yours forever.

    And what will you have after the upgrade is done, besides an airplane with a bad name? Less payload, lower Vne and Va, and who knows what other operating limitations to be spelled out by the not yet revised POH.

    Plans/drawings/specifications have not been finalized. How can anyone say this has been flight tested when the final upgrade design is still, literally, in development?

    So by now the orginal story we are commenting on should look pretty mild. No need to shoot the messenger, as reality tells a far worse tale. You can’t sugarcoat this one…

  8. Bill Lanman Says:

    Bruce, I am glad you are going to follow up with a more extensive reportage on the Zenith issue. As a Zenith 601XL builder, I can tell you that this has been a hugely emotional and devisive topic among builders. Many of us are concerned about the impact upon resale of our projects as well as the perception of our “pride and joy” amongst our friends, families and the GA community. I have complete confidence in the Zenith design–hundreds are safely flying and the company demo has been a true workhorse for ten years now. With the mods, the 601 should be the safest, most overbuilt, most closely scrutinized and extensively tested LSA kit on the market.

  9. Mark Wood Says:

    Thank you for your headline Bruce. I was happy to see it. The simple fact is and my opinion is totally politically incorrect, One in flight break up is is bad, but several indicates a serious design flaw. Period. One of the break ups that I am aware was witnessed to be in level unaccelerated flight and involved flutter of the ailerons. Cable, tension, hinge design balancing, structural design, mass balancing all have an impact on this. With so many repeated accidents I have often wondered about why the fleet wasn’t grounded a long time ago. The thing I’m wondering about is why and how can AMD justify charging for the repairs to an obviously flawed and dangerous condition. Beechcraft went through this with the V tail Bonanzas but in their case most of the breakups involves loss of control in IMC conditions.

    Not knowing any details of their airplanes, I know two guys that have 601′s. One recently finished his and gives rides all the time to friends and family. The other is not flying his at all.

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  57. Grant Says:

    It’s unfortunate that this dramatic headline still persists on the internet years after the problems have been regulated. I think it may unfairly influence potential builders and give them an innacurate image of Zenair aircraft.

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  59. Larry Says:

    Since you’ve written your article, the FAA Engineering has gone over the designs, load capacity and have written up 13 MANDITORY updates. I have completed ALL of those ADs. Now, why don’t you write up a follow up article, THANKING the FAA for all of their hard work and due diligence??? I KNOW I now have one of the BEST Zenith CH650′s ever. I built the upgrades exactly to the FAA Instructions!

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