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Tales from the DAR Side

E-LSA or Amateur-Built?

Joe Norris
Joe Norris

I’ve been getting a number of calls lately asking about the difference between an experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA) and an experimental amateur-built aircraft. These calls are mostly from EAA members who are considering an RV-12 project and wondering whether they should certificate the aircraft as E-LSA or amateur-built. There are potential benefits and pitfalls to both options, so in this month’s column I’ll try to shine some light on the subject.

First, some background. The amateur-built category has been around since the late 1940s. The regulation allowing an amateur-built aircraft to be certificated hasn’t changed much since its inception. Currently found in 14 CFR 21.191(g), the regulation states that an aircraft can be amateur-built if the “major portion” has been “fabricated and assembled by persons who undertook the construction project solely for their own education or recreation.” The definition of “major portion” is generally considered to be more than 50 percent, so this requirement is commonly referred to as the “51 percent rule.” Note that the regulation specifically requires the aircraft be built solely for the builder’s own education and recreation. That means no building for hire or for commercial purposes. Amateur-built aircraft are more commonly referred to as “homebuilts,” and many people equate amateur-built aircraft with “experimental,” not realizing that there are many more experimental categories that an aircraft may be certificated in. The fact is, all experimental aircraft aren’t created equal. Which brings us to E-LSA…

Experimental light-sport aircraft are authorized under 14 CFR 21.191(i), which became effective on September 1, 2004, along with all the sport pilot and light-sport aircraft rules. This regulation starts out by requiring the aircraft be a light-sport aircraft (LSA), which means that it must meet the definition of an LSA called out in 14 CFR 1.1.

There were originally three different ways an aircraft could gain an LSA airworthiness certificate. The first was for aircraft that hadn’t previously held an airworthiness certificate or flight authority in any country. This was the provision allowing the aircraft that had been operating as ultralight trainers to be converted to E-LSA. This option is no longer available, having expired on January 31, 2010 (after extension from the original January 31, 2008, expiration date.)

The second possibility is for an aircraft to be assembled from an approved kit. This kit is an exact duplicate of an aircraft certificated in the “light-sport” category, which is commonly referred to as a “special LSA” or “S-LSA.” The kit must be assembled strictly in accordance with the manufacturer’s plans and must have supporting paperwork from the manufacturer. The builder can’t deviate from the plans in any way. In this case there‘s no 51 percent rule and no requirement that the aircraft be built solely for education or recreation. This means that these aircraft could be built for hire.

The third possibility is for an aircraft that was originally certificated in the light-sport category to be converted to an E-LSA by the individual owner. I won’t delve into the details on this option right now, as that discussion is beyond the scope of this column.

Now that we’ve covered the history and the regulatory differences, we can discuss the details of one certification purpose over the other. Actually, from an operational standpoint, you won’t really see any difference at all. The operating limitations issued to an amateur-built aircraft aren’t all that different from those issued to an E-LSA. Where you’ll find the difference is in the certification and testing process, as well as the inspection requirements.

The overall certification process for all experimental aircraft is the same. In every case, the applicant submits a form containing the required documents, and the FAA (in the person of an FAA inspector or designated airworthiness representative [DAR]) reviews the application and then performs a physical inspection of the aircraft. In all cases, it’s the responsibility of the applicant to show the FAA that the aircraft a) qualifies for the certification requested, and b) is in a condition for safe operation. To continue the process, the FAA must then agree that the aircraft does indeed qualify for the certificate requested and is in a condition for safe operation. The short explanation of this is “the applicant must show and the FAA must find.” The major difference between an amateur-built and an E-LSA application is the method for showing that the aircraft qualifies for the certification requested.

For an aircraft built from a qualified E-LSA kit, the required proof of qualification is fairly simple. The applicant must have an FAA Form 8130-15 Statement of Compliance that has been completed and signed by the manufacturer of the kit and evidence that the aircraft was built strictly in accordance with the manufacturer’s construction manual. No other construction records are necessary, and it doesn’t matter whether the builder was building for recreation or for hire. Remember, there’s no 51 percent rule for an E-LSA and no requirement that the aircraft be constructed for education or recreation. As long as the applicant can show that the aircraft was built strictly in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions and the properly executed 8130-15 is included in the application package, the aircraft qualifies.

An amateur-built application is a different story. Applicants for an amateur-built airworthiness certificate are required to be able to show compliance with the 51 percent rule. One of the forms in the application package is FAA Form 8130-12 Eligibility Statement. This notarized form contains a statement certifying that the builder(s) have performed the major portion of the fabrication and assembly tasks and that they have documentation supporting the claim. The 8130-12 also contains a statement outlining potential penalties for falsification of the form. Documenting compliance with the 51 percent rule might be fairly easy, or it might be complicated. Which it is depends on several factors.

The path of least resistance is when the aircraft was built from a kit that is already listed on the FAA’s kits listing and the builder(s) did all the remaining tasks without commercial assistance. In this case, the FAA already knows that the kit itself qualifies for amateur-built certification because it has been evaluated and found to meet the major portion requirements. And since the builder(s) didn’t employ any paid assistance (usually referred to as commercial assistance), the FAA can be reasonably sure that the remaining tasks were completed for the builder’s own education or recreation. Builders who build from plans, or build an original design, benefit even further because there’s no kit involved to cut into the builder’s percentage of the fabrication and assembly (assuming no commercial assistance was employed).

Things get more interesting when either the kit isn’t on the FAA’s kits listing or if commercial assistance is employed. The burgeoning kit industry along with the growing list of commercial assistance providers caused the FAA to change the certification procedures for amateur-built aircraft. Kits were becoming more and more complete (especially “quick-build” kits), and more builders were looking for help in completing the aircraft, bringing into question whether or not the amateur builder was actually meeting the 51 percent rule by completing the major portion of the fabrication and assembly tasks. The tool that the FAA gave the inspectors in the field was the Amateur-Built Aircraft Fabrication and Assembly Checklist (2009), which can be found in Advisory Circular 20-27G. This checklist breaks down the applicable tasks into columns where credit for completing the task can be given either to the kit manufacturer, the amateur builder, or a commercial assistance provider. Individual tasks can even be split between the columns. The bottom line is that, at the end of the day, the amateur builder’s column must add up to over 50 percent of the total.

Remember when I said “the applicant must show and the FAA must find”? This checklist is at the heart of that requirement. For applications where the kit manufacturer hasn’t had their aircraft evaluated by the FAA and hasn’t completed this checklist for their builders, it’s up to the individual applicant to figure out all these percentages. It’s not the FAA inspector’s or DAR’s responsibility to do all the leg work to figure this out, and it’s well within the inspector’s purview to simply not accept an application until the checklist is properly completed. This being the case, applicants who have employed commercial assistance on an aircraft for which the new fabrication and assembly checklist hasn’t been completed by the kit manufacturer are looking at a major project in getting this checklist completed so their application can go forward.

Now that we’ve covered the certification differences, let’s talk a little about flight testing and maintenance differences. The flight test time for an E-LSA is required to be a “minimum of 5 hours” (referring to FAA Order 8130.2F). An amateur-built aircraft, on the other hand, will normally have a 40-hour minimum flight test requirement, with a possibility of getting a 25-hour flight test requirement if a type-certificated engine/prop combination is installed. Now, most inspectors I know issue a 25-hour flight test to a brand-new E-LSA, but some may issue a shorter time. Advantage to E-LSA!

Maintenance rules are identical in either case. Anyone, regardless of FAA certification (or lack of same) is allowed to perform maintenance, repair, or modification to an E-LSA or amateur-built aircraft. Also noteworthy is the fact that the owner (builder or not) is allowed to modify the aircraft as he desires. In the case of an E-LSA, the modifications can’t be done until after the aircraft has received its airworthiness certificate, and must be kept within the LSA definition.

The difference comes in who is allowed to perform the annual condition inspection. For amateur-built aircraft, the original primary builder can apply to receive the repairman certificate authorizing him or her to perform the condition inspection. No special training or testing is necessary, but no subsequent owner is eligible for the repairman certificate for an amateur-built aircraft. For E-LSA, the owner can be eligible for the repairman certificate after completing an approved 16-hour course of instruction. The owner doesn’t have to be the builder of the aircraft in order to qualify for the E-LSA repairman certificate. In either case, an airframe and powerplant mechanic may also perform the inspection. 

Okay, we’ve taken the long road around to deciding which certification category might be more desirable. The answer is it depends. First of all, unless the aircraft is being built from an approved E-LSA kit, the answer is easy – amateur-built certification is the only choice. But those building an RV-12 (or any other approved E-LSA kit) might be tempted to go amateur-built rather than E-LSA. Why? Let’s look at the pros and cons, specifically using the RV-12 as an example.

E-LSA certification pros:

  • No 51 percent rule requirement
  • No requirement to build for education or recreation
  • Commercial assistance not an issue
  • Likely shorter flight test time requirement
  • Subsequent owners can qualify for repairman certificate by completing 16-hour course

E-LSA certification cons:

  • Builder can’t deviate from assembly instructions in either structure or installed equipment
  • Builder must take 16-hour course in order to qualify for repairman certificate

Amateur-built certification pros:

  • Builder is allowed to install alternate equipment as desired (within LSA definition)
  • Builder qualifies for repairman certificate without taking additional training

Amateur-built certification cons:

  • Subsequent owners can’t qualify for repairman certificate regardless of training
  • Longer flight test period requirement
  • Applicant is responsible to fill out fabrication and assembly task checklist
  • Commercial assistance cuts into builder’s percentage of fabrication and assembly

This last point is a major one since, to date, Van’s Aircraft hasn’t yet asked the FAA to evaluate the RV-12 kit for inclusion on the FAA’s kits listing. Unless Van’s would be willing to help individual builders fill out the “kit manufacturer” portion of the checklist, the applicant is looking at a major project in trying to fill out the checklist. Now, if Van’s does have the FAA evaluate the RV-12 kit and the kit gets placed on the FAA’s kits listing, the amateur-built application process will be considerably easier, and the only thing the builder would need to watch out for is commercial assistance that brings the builder’s portion below the magic 51 percent.

So that’s the long story of E-LSA versus amateur-built certification. Hopefully I’ve answered more questions than I’ve created. If you do have further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Good luck with your projects!


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