The National Transportation Safety Board last week launched a study into the safety of experimental aircraft, the so-called "homebuilt" planes favored by some Birchwood Airport pilots and a growing number of enthusiasts in the Lower 48.
The homebuilt label reflects the difference between the experimental planes and manufactured aircraft such as the Cessna 180. Pilots build their own airplanes from kits, existing plans or from their own designs. Fans say the homebuilt planes come much cheaper than manufactured aircraft $60,000 or $70,000 versus $200,000. They're also fun to fly, capable of exceeding 200 mph and acrobatics in the air. And they also praise the safety of the planes, and the resources available to the people building them.
Safety officials, however, say the aircraft aren't necessarily subject to the same agency certification process as manufactured planes and may pose a higher risk to the people who fly them.
An officer with the Anchorage chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association said he welcomes the NTSB's attention to experimental aircraft safety. Retired military and commercial pilot Ed White, 66, is slowly building a Van's RV-4 in his Eagle River garage. White said he expects the NTSB study will provide pilots with resources on how to build experimental planes safely. He noted that pilots are already required to do "extensive" flight testing. The association provides a technical representative who helps build aircraft and inspects them before they're certified to fly, White said. But some pilots and homebuilt enthusiasts might not know what resources are available to them.
"I think it's actually the NTSB beginning to see a trend and they're trying to nip it at the bud before it gets too far along," White said. "I think the study is going to expose a lot more resources for builders to be more safe."
He also said he hopes the NTSB's findings will help the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA regulates and licenses experimental aircraft. If individuals build at least 51 percent of an aircraft, it can be registered in the amateur-built/homebuilt category, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Web site. White said the NTSB's findings are "going to make the FAA, when they send out their inspectors, they're going to be more knowledgeable. Other than signing a check list, they're going to have more information out there."
An Alaska-based FAA official did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Experimental homebuilts account for 33,000 of the roughly 224,000 general aviation aircraft registered in the United States, according to the NTSB. Nationally, the experimental segment of the general aviation community accounts for 20 to 25 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, with roughly seven of them fatal, according to NTSB statistics. That's probably twice the rate of manufactured aircraft, the NTSB says.
Statistics on the number of the aircraft registered in Alaska weren't available. But officials said Alaskans fly experimental planes much less than pilots in other states do. Since the agency started tracking accidents this year as part of the new study, the NTSB has logged two accidents in Alaska one in Anchorage, the other in Sterling compared to well over 100 total around the country, NTSB officials said.
The safety study will examine a range of areas including builder assistance programs, flight test and certification requirements, aircraft maintenance, and performance. The NTSB is working with the Experimental Aircraft Association, which is distributing a survey as part of the study. NTSB officials in Alaska say they just want to get a better idea what problems might exist with experimental aircraft.
"We find some anomalies with them for construction methods, perhaps some systemic issues occasionally with the kit itself," said Jim LaBelle, the board's top Alaska official. "We find that in manufactured aircraft as well. I wouldn't single them out for exposure but it's something we want to look at globally within the U.S. and see if we do have some issues."
The Birchwood aviation community is all too familiar with tragedies involving experimental aircraft. Alaska ultralight pioneer Mike Jacober died in 2003 with a student about two miles from Birchwood. Richard Rolland, a Wasilla resident, was killed in 2008 when his Challenger II crashed behind a gravel pit in the native village of Eklutna. Last year, Jeff Bennett died when his ski-equipped experimental light sport weight-shift-control Antares MA-32 crashed along the Alaska Railroad tracks in Chugiak. Friends and colleagues described Bennett as an instinctive pilot who flew with care and passion. A video camera mounted on the aircraft captured the crash, as well as the "steep climbing right turn to the east" Bennett executed before the Antares lost momentum and began falling backwards, according to an NTSB investigation.
The completed safety study is expected to be published by the fall of 2012.
For more information about the study or for a link to the Experimental Aircraft Association survey, go to ntsb.gov or eaa.org
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.