Making the Transition to Experimental Aircraft

As amateur-built aircraft, also referred to as homebuilt aircraft or experimental aircraft, become more popular, safety issues have become more pressing. At a seminar held at the US National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) training center recently, the topic “Transitioning Into a Homebuilt: This is Test Flying” presented case studies on the buyers and sellers of homebuilt aircraft, and the current safety trends. In a 2012 NTSB study it was revealed that the accident rate for homebuilt aircraft in the United States was three to four times higher than in general aviation. It was also revealed that up to ten percent of accidents with homebuilt aircraft occur on the first flight, and up to fifty-five percent of homebuilt aircraft accidents occur in pre-owned aircraft.

Statistics indicate that buyers in general have not put sufficient effort into transitioning from certified aircraft to homebuilt aircraft, by taking time to learn its systems, flight characteristics and performance. Not having enough information on the testing and performance of an aircraft appears to be more of a problem when the aircraft is pre-owned. The variance between expected performance and actual performance is often much wider than expected – a fact that may only be discovered in flight and to the detriment of the pilot. It was also pointed out at the seminar that having a good understanding of the aircraft’s construction does not necessarily mean having an understanding of its performance.

While the ideal situation would be to buy an aircraft from the builder who has firsthand knowledge of design and performance, and who has tested the aircraft extensively, this is seldom the case. Case studies reveal that typically the seller is a private pilot who never quite got the hang of the aircraft and eventually gave up and put it on the market. It was also noted that buyers often rushed through checking the aircraft out, and when offered additional training, deemed it unnecessary because they knew how to pilot a plane.

Bearing in mind that homebuilt aircraft do not have to meet the airworthiness standards of certified aircraft, buyers need to understand that flying the aircraft is entirely at their own risk. The very fact that these aircraft are referred to as ‘experimental’ should make that clear. The Air Safety Institute reportedly has plans to make available an online course in 2014 to assist pilots with transitioning from one type of aircraft to another – including homebuilt and experimental aircraft.