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Look Back - Look Forward - Move Forward

The future of homebuilding

by Dick VanGrunsven, EAA 3204, Founder, Van's Aircraft

For the last 18 months, I served on the amateur-built aircraft Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The committee’s task was to address the problem of commercial assistance abuse and propose solutions that would allow homebuilders to continue to have reasonable freedom without causing the FAA to put new limits on homebuilt activity.

It has been an interesting and challenging project. I spent a significant amount of time and money traveling to meetings and a lot more time on phone calls, e-mails, and writing and rewriting proposals and other papers. To say I have gone to sleep and awakened thinking of these issues is no exaggeration. I’d rather be dreaming of new designs or my next soaring competition, but there is too much at stake here for the future of homebuilding.

The committee was required to reach consensus on corrective action proposals and forward them to higher levels in the FAA. As the ARC is composed of both FAA and general aviation (GA) members — EAA and industry — consensus could not be reached on all issues. Some proposals were agreed to by the entire ARC; others were agreed to by only the industry members. Of course, the FAA has the final authority regarding the final policy. We won’t know which proposals will be included, excluded, or changed in the final text until it is published in the Federal Register. Then there will be an opportunity for public comment.

If you have been following the EAA website, there have been a couple of interesting postings, one on November 16 and another on November 21, concerning the ARC and its impact on homebuilding. The first was basically a report of the final ARC meeting. The second led into a subject that may have a dramatic effect on the future of what we know as experimental amateur-built aircraft. That is, the prospect of using the Primary Category kit aircraft regulation as a solution to building more complex aircraft.

Something Old, Something New

The result of several years of work by EAA, the Small Aircraft Manufacturers Association (SAMA), FAA, and others, the Primary Category was established in 1992 for the purpose of creating a less complex and less costly means of certifying small aircraft for training and personal use. It included provisions for both factory-produced aircraft and kit aircraft. After all of the dust settled, certifying airplanes in the Primary Category was still quite complex and costly, so few manufacturers chose do it. One reason for the certification complexity and cost is the FAA oversight required. What I have heard over the years from those who have gone through the Primary Category certification process is that designing and testing is not as challenging as dealing with the FAA and satisfying its requirements.

The motivations behind creating the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category were similar to those for the Primary Category. The differences are not so much in the aircraft standards themselves, but in the fact that LSA are industry-certified. The presumption is that industry oversight is much less expensive and more expeditious than FAA oversight. The ASTM International process was chosen as the mechanism for setting the standards and administering them.

Primary Category kit aircraft and experimental LSA (E-LSA) — LSA built from kits — are similar in that they must comply with the configuration standards established during certification. Kit airplanes built in either category — licensed experimental because they are not manufactured under a factory production certificate — may not deviate from the original design the way experimental amateur-built can.

Because the Primary Category already exists, the difficult and slow process of rulemaking would not be necessary to resolve some of the problems resulting from abuses of the E-AB major portion rule and excessive commercial builder assistance. What is needed is for the FAA to accept the use of industry oversight of this category, just as they have in the LSA category. The limiting parameters of Primary Category aircraft are: nonpressurized, single, normally aspirated engine; maximum four seats; 2,700-pound gross weight; and a 61-knot stall speed. There is no 51-percent requirement, so commercial assistance is not an issue.

The bottom line is that implementing Primary Category kits using industry auditing could provide an alternative to major portion and commercial assistance limitations for about 93 percent of existing kit aircraft on the market. For those kit aircraft that exceed the defined limits of the Primary Category, another solution would need to be found.


A report on page 9 of the December 2007 issue of EAA Sport Aviation mentioned that new FAA policy for evaluating 51-percent rule compliance may disqualify some fast-build kits, essentially partially assembled airframes. Does this mean the quick-build kits you are now building will be affected, that current fast-build kits will be affected, or that only new designs will be affected?

During our November 15 meeting in Washington, D.C., this topic came up and resulted in a rather tense exchange between industry and FAA members. As with other points discussed during the ARC process, we won’t know the final result until the FAA publishes its new policy proposals. The best that I can predict is that current builders will not be affected. It is my feeling that aircraft built from kits purchased prior to the new policy implementation date (perhaps a year or two), which have been evaluated by the FAA for major portion compliance, will be certifiable as amateur-built aircraft at any time in the future. Because it often takes a long time to complete an E-AB airplane, it is only reasonable that such grandfathering be honored.

The question of grandfathering future production of existing designs, evaluated for compliance prior to a rules change, is another issue. From what was stated and/or implied by the FAA, they do not intend to routinely re-evaluate existing major-portion compliant kits. You can only imagine the complications that might ensue if you purchased part of a kit and it was re-evaluated and found noncompliant before you purchased the remainder! I don’t think this will happen.

We expect that kits for new designs entering the market after the implementation of any new policy will be evaluated under the new guidelines, whatever these may be. If the new policy is more restrictive, it will probably mean that some new fast-build kits may no longer be preassembled to the degree they are now. This might result in fewer kits being sold, and development of new designs might be stifled … unless the Primary Category kit idea takes root.

Right now we are in a holding pattern regarding what the new policy will be. We must wait for the FAA to decide what it wants, and then publish it. Then we will have the opportunity to submit comments and recommendations if warranted. We at Van’s Aircraft, and I’m sure those at EAA, are anxiously awaiting this. Through our newsletter and website, we will make the new FAA policy available to you, along with our interpretations, comments, and recommendations. Until then, keep checking the EAA website for updates, maintain an awareness of the gravity of the issue, and discuss it with other pilots and builders of E-AB aircraft so that there is a broad awareness of its importance.

Summarizing the above: For those currently building, I am quite confident you have little to worry about. It is possible that by the time you are ready for final airworthiness inspection, the inspector may request more evidence that you did perform more than 50 percent of the construction. Unless you had significant levels of commercial assistance, there should be no problem.

Looking at Both Sides

We are all familiar with homebuilts and homebuilding from our involvement in EAA and the greater Van’s Aircraft RV fraternity. We all have experienced the great joy and satisfaction of building and flying homebuilt aircraft, and relating with each other in our special world. We see amateur-built aircraft as overwhelmingly positive. We are insiders; we know and understand this specialized segment of aviation. But what about those on the outside who do not have the background and awareness to appreciate the merits of our world?

 Consider the viewpoint of those in the highest levels of the FAA or perhaps in Congress. They might ask, “What’s this we hear about this special category of experimental airplanes that are not required to meet normal design and manufacturing standards? I hear there are now more than 25,000 of them registered, and that some of them are being commercially built. How safe are they?”

Brief answer: In 1947, the FAA created the E-AB category, probably with much less effort than that expended in the recent FAA ARC process. Normal safety standards, the need to comply with the type certificate/production certificate process, were waived so that amateurs would have the freedom to construct their own aircraft, for “education and recreation.” In the ensuing years, a fleet of aircraft recently reported as numbering more than 25,000 has evolved. What about safety? Generally, year by year, E-AB safety had been improving. However, over the past several years, the E-AB accident rate has remained fairly constant. This rate is more than 200 percent higher than for overall GA aircraft.

Now, back to the inquisitor: “So, 60 years after the creation of this category, this growing fleet of airplanes is still less than half as safe as production aircraft, and an increasing number are being commercially built. What are you doing about that?”

Brief Answer: The FAA ARC committee was formed.

What Do You Think?

What would you do if you were the FAA and had been directed to “do something”? What rules and policies would you make that would accommodate the greatest proportion of your constituency and still address the problems that concern you and those whom you answer to?

I don’t want your answers now. I just want you to think about it. There will probably come a time when public input may make an impact on the direction the rules governing homebuilt airplanes will take. When that time comes, well-considered and carefully reasoned opinions will help guide us toward what the FAA, the EAA, the industry, and aircraft builders all want: an environment that allows experimentation, promotes safety, and keeps the spirit of the E-AB category that has served us well for almost 60 years.

A personal observation: I have had the opportunity to work with Earl Lawrence, EAA’s vice president of industry and government affairs, over a number of years and watch him in action at many FAA policy meetings, including the recent ARC meetings. He knows his stuff, and is a hard worker. I know we are getting our money’s worth from Earl. Sometimes we may question whether EAA is still devoted to the cause of homebuilders. Surveys have shown that only about one-third of EAA members have any interest in building their own airplanes and fewer are actually involved. Despite our minority position, I am convinced that our interests are being served by EAA. The AOPA also looks after our GA interests and deserves our support. But, for our special interests, EAA is the only show in town. Though EAA now represents many other aviation special interest groups, they are still supporting the interests of homebuilders.

To read Dick’s previous article on this subject, visit www.VansAircraft.com and click on “Pokin’ the Bear.”

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