How Safe Are Experimental Airplanes?
You have probably watched the news on television and have seen reports of small plane crashes. Every time you view these stories you may feel that these airplanes are just not safe. Statistics state that as a pilot or passenger in a small airplane you are 12 times more likely to be killed when compared to auto accident statistics. These aviation statistics apply to certified aircraft. The experimental amateur built airplane can have an even higher rate of fatal accidents. Non pilots who read and hear about experimental airplanes may wonder why the FAA even allows them to fly. Are these airplanes certified? Are they inspected like a certified Cessna 172 or Piper Archer?
First, let us see how an experimental aircraft is defined. All airplanes have to receive an airworthiness certificate from the FAA, including experimental/amateur built kits. Because an amateur built plane is built solely for education and personal use it will receive this type of certification. So, for instance, if a pilot buys a kit plane it will be certified as an experimental and within that certification it will be placed in the category of amateur built. As a side note experimental certification occur for various reasons. For instance, the aircraft may be used for research and development, aircraft exhibition or air racing.
So the FAA does play a role in the certification of experimental planes. Now you may wonder, once the kit arrives and the building begins is that it? Does the FAA ever hear from the builder again? The answer is a definite yes! If the builder actually takes action and builds the kit there will be steps that need to be followed. The FAA has taken the steps to provide inspectors for airplane certification, including experimental certification. These inspectors have the title of Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR). These inspectors will do a complete inspection of the plane before signing it off. Also, the inspectors want to see documentation that the person who supposedly built the plane actually did so. So the builder must have pictures and a log to show the entire kit aircraft construction process.
Experimental kit plane builders must provide documents to the FAA for the certification process to be complete. These documents include AC Form 8050-3 which is the certificate of aircraft registration. The builder will need to show evidence of a builder’s log. Drawings and photographs of the building process will have to be presented. The kit builder will have to have a notarized FAA Form 8130-12 which provides the eligibility statement for the amateur built aircraft. Finally the builder will need to provide a program letter stating that it is an amateur built airplane from a kit as defined in FAR 21.191g.
Once the DAR inspects the experimental kit plane and finds it to be acceptable, he or she will now provide operating limitations and an area that the phase one flight testing will be allowed to take place in. The flight test area is usually performed around the airport over open land. The flight testing must be performed for 40 hours in the kit plane that has an engine that is not certified and 25 hours if a certified engine like a Lycoming or Continental has been installed. All of the test flying must be done without carrying any passengers. Once the flight testing is complete and no issues are detected a log entry is made and the flight testing limitations are lifted. The most critical part of flight testing tends to be engine temperature control and proper flight planning to insure all flight parameters are tested and checked thoroughly. Before flight testing even occurs in phase one the engine is run several times in different power settings while the airplane is parked. Slow and high speed taxi tests are performed several times. Higher speed taxi testing on the runway will also be performed. Quite often these taxi tests on the runway will reach near takeoff speeds.
Once the testing is complete the plane can be flown just like an aircraft certified in a normal category. However, experimental kit planes must not be used for compensation or hire. Also, FAR 91.319 states that experimental aircraft may not operate over densely populated areas or in a congested airway. However, the administrator may issue special operating limitations which can allow operation over densely populated areas and in congested airways. I think the administrator will allow special operating limitations in some cases based on the type of experimental aircraft in question. Normally certified aircraft like Cessna, Mooney and Piper must receive an annual inspection every 12 calendar months to remain airworthy. Experimental airplanes must also receive what are called conditional inspections every 12 calendar months. If these amateur built airplanes are allowed to go beyond 12 calendar months without this inspection the aircraft is not considered airworthy and cannot be flown legally.
Unfortunately most fatal accidents in experimental planes occur during the initial flight testing. This shows that more needs to be done to educate pilots and builders of these planes. The FAA, NTSB and the EAA (Experimental Aircraft association) have been working hard on providing education and guidance to builders of experimental planes. Builders of these aircraft need to treat the initial flight testing like Cessna and Piper treat their flight testing. It needs to be methodical and carefully planned. It is a very good idea to have an experienced pilot who has test flown aircraft before to do the initial flying. Being a good pilot does not necessarily make one a good test pilot.
Flying experimental airplanes can be dangerous if the whole process of building, test flying and properly maintaining these planes are not followed to a high degree of accuracy. This is why the choice to build one of these aircraft should be very carefully researched and one should analyze their abilities to follow very specific procedures with a high degree of discipline.