Private planes assembled from kits have been involved in more crashes and deaths than other small aircraft because pilots are often ill-prepared to fly them, a U.S. safety study found.
Planes like those that Micron Technology Inc. (MU:US) Chief Executive Officer Steve Appleton and singer John Denver were piloting when they died are more than three times more likely to be in a fatal accident, the National Transportation Safety Board said today. Ten of 102 accidents in home-built planes last year occurred the first time a pilot flew them.
Home-built small planes are classified as experimental by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and have fewer regulatory restrictions than similar factory-built planes, the safety board said. It voted to recommend requiring pilots to conduct fuel-system testing, file flight-test plans and use the latest electronic gear to record flight data.
“This has been an issue for a while,” Robert Sumwalt, a NTSB board member, said at a hearing in Washington today after describing Denver’s crash almost 15 years ago. “It involves a lot of pilots. Hopefully we can drive the accident rate significantly down as a result of this study.”
Unlike with a factory plane, pilots of home-built aircraft must test fly the craft themselves. Flight tests are not always conducted according to FAA recommendations and pilots are often not prepared to assess whether the plane is in working order, the study found.
Pilots who bought a used home-built plane often had similar difficulties on initial flights, according to the study. While the FAA has guidance for how to test the planes, the regulatory agency doesn’t check to ensure that it was done.
“There’s really no excuse for not having an effective flight-test program,” Earl Weener, a NTSB member, said at the hearing.
Of about 224,000 U.S. general aviation aircraft, 33,000 were built from plans or kits, according to the safety board. About 1,000 are made each year, Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, said in a phone interview. The group welcomed the board’s suggestions, and is working on implementing several recommendations, he said.
The association, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, represents more than 160,000 pilots and other enthusiasts, according to its website. The group helped the safety board survey owners for its study.
Home-built models range from simple designs made mainly from wood to high-performance aircraft built with carbon fiber. They have been growing in popularity because they typically cost less than factory-built planes and appeal to hobbyists, Knapinski said.
The home-built Lancair IVP-TP plane that Micron Technology’s Appleton was flying when he crashed and died Feb. 3 in Boise, Idaho, was equipped with a turbine engine and was pressurized to fly at high altitudes. This model can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Knapinski.
Appleton’s plane crashed shortly after takeoff as he was attempting to return to the airport, according to the safety board. Investigators haven’t established a cause.
One of the best-known accidents involving home-built planes was one that killed Denver on Oct. 12, 1997, in the ocean just off Pacific Grove, California.
Denver had 2,750 hours of flight time and had been approved to fly many aircraft types, including Learjets, according to safety board records.
Denver owned the plane that crashed, a Long EZ home-built model designed by Scaled Composites LLC of Mohave, California, for about two weeks and flown it a handful of times, the safety board found. The company, now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC:US), was founded by spacecraft designer Burt Rutan.
The accident occurred after fuel in one tank ran out and the engine stopped running as Denver attempted to switch to the other tank, the safety board ruled. Denver’s inadequate training in the plane contributed to the accident, the agency said, as did a relocated fuel switch that was difficult to reach. Because the plane was a home-built model, there were no U.S. rules on moving the fuel switch, according to the safety board.
One of the biggest causes of accidents was engine failure and the safety board voted to recommend that pilots be required to test a new plane’s fuel system before its first flight.
Home-built plane owners should also be required to submit a flight-test plan to the FAA, the safety board recommended.
Pilots should also be encouraged to use the latest electronic gear to record data from test flights to provide a more detailed record of a plane’s performance, according to the safety board.
The FAA is reviewing the safety board’s recommendations, the agency said in a statement. An initiative already under way to help pilots avoid losing control of aircraft, a leading cause of home-built accidents, may address some safety board recommendations, the FAA said.
The purpose of the study wasn’t to discourage people from building their own aircraft, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the safety board, said in an interview after the hearing.
The home-built segment of the market has helped drive innovations such as computerized cockpit electronics and the use of composite materials, Hersman said. Several safety-board employees have built planes in their spare time.
“They are the heartbeat of aviation,” she said of hobbyists who fly those models.
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