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Homebuilts and Accidents

Accurate homebuilt safety figures not easy to find

In late March, a pilot flying a Lancair executed a good emergency landing onto the beach near Hilton Head, South Carolina, after losing a propeller and having oil splatter over the windshield, blocking his view.

Unfortunately, a jogger was running on the beach where the aircraft landed. The jogger was struck and killed. The oddity of the story made it national news, and the Associated Press (AP) ran a story about an FAA safety advisory regarding Lancair aircraft. That left two questions: If this incident had occurred with a type-certificated aircraft, such as a Cessna, Piper, or Cirrus, would it have been dismissed simply as a tragic happenstance? Or, if the jogger had been 30 seconds faster or slower, would this incident simply be a one-day local story about a skilled pilot making a successful emergency landing on the beach?

Such is often the fate, however, when the media cover homebuilt aircraft. The AP story pointed to figures that claim the homebuilt aircraft fatal accident rate is seven times higher than factory-built aircraft. The AP did not contact EAA and attributed the numbers to the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

EAA contacted the AP reporter immediately after the story was posted and convinced the reporter to add text that said that EAA disagrees with the numbers and believes the actual accident rate is much lower.

Such articles are aggravating to pilots and EAA, as they can create a misconception that homebuilts are unsafe aircraft. Accurate analysis of the accident numbers helps focus on areas needing improvements.

The questions we should be asking are not whether homebuilts have more accidents than factory-built aircraft, since that game could be played all the way down the line…privately flown piston-powered aircraft have more accidents than privately flown turbine-powered aircraft; turbine-powered general aviation aircraft have more accidents than airliners; and so on. Instead, the questions to be asked are: Is there an excessive number of homebuilt accidents? What can we as a homebuilt community do to improve this situation?

Establishing a solid, verifiable library of statistics is the first step. Longtime EAA member and homebuilder Ron Wanttaja shared his nearly decade-long analysis of homebuilt aircraft accidents. After closely studying the FAA and NTSB figures, Ron discovered a number of important facts:

  • More than 20 percent of the accidents in the homebuilt category, as reported by the FAA and NTSB, were actually factory-built aircraft and did not belong in the homebuilt accident log.
  • FAA registration figures vastly under-reported the total number of active homebuilts, perhaps by as many as 12,000 aircraft, which greatly affects percentage comparisons.
  • When compared to factory-built aircraft, homebuilts have a disproportionate number of accidents on the first flight and in the first 40 hours of flight, the test-flight phase for many homebuilts. The rate drops drastically after that period.

A link to Ron’s complete report, “Digging Deeper Into Homebuilt Safety,” is available at www.SportAviation.org.

When EAA met with the FAA during the annual winter recreational aviation meeting, all were comfortable with where amateur-built accident rates were in comparison to factory-built accident rates. The homebuilt accident rate was somewhat higher, but within an acceptable range.

FAA officials also were impressed with the variety of EAA homebuilt safety programs available to the aircraft builder and homebuilt pilot. One FAA official said, “We have to make sure these programs are known throughout the pilot community.”

EAA agrees. Statistics show that builders who use the EAA technical counselor and flight advisor programs have a remarkably lower accident rate than builders who do not. SportAir Workshops, Hints for Homebuilders videos, and builders’ content in EAA Sport Aviation magazine also contribute to builder education.

One accident is too many. One death is a tragedy we all must aim to prevent. It is why EAA will continue to study accident figures and work on areas that need improvement. EAA will also work toward making sure that reporting about homebuilt safety is done accurately and that government figures truly reflect the homebuilt fleet and accident rates.

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