By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
August 3, 2013 - Building an experimental airplane can be one of a pilot's most notable achievements. But at first flight, that builder becomes a test pilot.
Sadly, the safety record demonstrates too many builders suffer accidents early in a new experimental aircraft's history. The EAA wants to change that and is working with the FAA on solutions.
Last year at Oshkosh the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shared the findings of a study examining 10 years of experimental amateur-built (E-AB) aircraft accidents. Among the many findings and recommendations is a sobering statistic: Approximately 10 percent of E-AB accidents in 2011 occurred on the aircraft's first flight. Phase 1 flight testing - the initial phase during which a new E-AB must clear operational testing - also sees a large proportion of accidents.
After last year's NTSB study EAA identified several ways to help improve the safety of initial flights and Phase 1 testing. For example, the association has reached out to E-AB type clubs, working with them to increase awareness of ways to more safely conduct such flights. Many aspects of building an E-AB and conducting pre-flight systems testing can benefit from type-specific knowledge and experience; type organizations are the place to go for the details.
What kinds of details? Well, ensuring adequate fuel flow or that a new E-AB's electrical system is properly evaluated. How about developing a detailed pilot's operating handbook, documenting the operation of those and other systems while detailing how the aircraft should be flown?
One of the most important ways to enhance the safety of initial and Phase 1 test flights, however, can involve a second, type-experienced pilot. Regulations don't, of course, allow a second person aboard aircraft designed for single-pilot operation during flight testing. EAA is working with the FAA to explain the beneficial ways in which a second, type-experienced pilot can help a builder during initial flights and Phase 1 flight testing.
Importantly, many of the changes to the ways in which E-ABs are tested can be implemented without new regulations or FAA guidance. That's how everyone wants it, from the FAA to EAA and down to individual builders.
One of the keys to achieving these goals and responding to the issues uncovered in the NTSB study is for type clubs and builders to develop their own procedures and methodologies designed to bring greater organization, experience, and documentation to the initial flight testing of an E-AB. EAA's goal is for the E-AB community to work voluntarily on these and related issues, without new FAA regulations, and to enjoy the benefits of improved safety.
Based on conversations with EAA staff, that's also the FAA's objective. But it's also clear that if the community can't develop ways to improve E-AB safety, the FAA may.
And no one wants that.