August 25, 2008

Federal Rules Govern Home-Built Aircraft

By Keith Rogers



The rules on certifying and flying home-built experimental aircraft, such as the Velocity 173 RG that crashed Friday, are detailed in a 150-plus page Federal Aviation Administration document.

Before its maiden flight, the FAA must certify the craft's airworthiness.

Then it is flight tested, normally for 40 hours in the case of the Velocity aircraft, by a licensed pilot over remote, unpopulated areas, according to the FAA regulations.

During flight testing, an FAA-certified examiner must verify that it can be flown safely. After 40 hours have been logged, the FAA can make an addition to the experimental aircraft airworthiness certificate that states the limitations of the plane.

Even then, "Except for takeoffs and landings, this aircraft may not be operated over densely populated areas or in congested airways," the regulations state.

The regulations state that such home-built aircraft are "prohibited from operating in congested airways or over densely populated areas unless directed by air traffic control, or unless sufficient altitude is maintained to effect a safe emergency landing in the event of a power unit failure, without hazard to persons or property on the ground."

The plane that crashed after taking off Friday, killing the pilot and two people in a house, had only five flight hours, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigator Elliott Simpson, who had the plane's flight log book.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the airworthiness certificate for the plane was issued in 2002. He said the issue, however, is not whether its owner had the proper airworthiness certificate but what its operating limitations were.

"We're investigating whether this aircraft had to have 40 flight hours to fly over populated areas while arriving at, or departing from, an airport," Gregor wrote in an e-mail.

"A certified inspector examines a home-built aircraft once it's completed to make sure the work is done properly," he continued. "Home-built aircraft also must get annual inspections, just like any other privately owned aircraft. Again, it is up to the aircraft owner to make sure that these inspections are performed."

When asked about the risks involved with flying amateur-built aircraft, Earl Lawrence, vice president of industry and regulatory affairs for the Experimental Aircraft Association, said, "It's not as safe as driving a family vehicle but safer than driving a motorcycle."

Based on 15 years of experience with the association, he said, crashes of experimental aircraft "very rarely involve fatalities on the ground."

"I can only think of two incidents," he said. "This being one, and one in the last two years in Sacramento when somebody was doing some maneuvering over a home," he said in a phone call from the headquarters in Oshkosh, Wis., of the association, founded in 1954 and claiminig 160,000 members.

After learning of Friday's triple fatal crash, Lawrence said, "Nobody wants to see anybody hurt on the ground. ... Unfortunately, that's why they call them accidents. They do occur, whether it's an aircraft built by an amateur or one built by a manufacturer."

Lawrence said a kit for a typical experimental aircraft airframe costs about $35,000, and that it can take six months to 20 years to assemble the plane and equip it with an engine, propeller, instruments and a radio. After that, the cost might have doubled, he said.

The issue of flying home-built airplanes out of the busy North Las Vegas Airport has been on the association's radar since at least 2006.

That's when the association announced it was working on solutions to make experimental aircraft flights compatible with the fast- growing urban area surrounding the airport.

The association acknowledged that "first flights" of amateur- built aircraft had been disallowed from the North Las Vegas Airport by the FAA.

According to Lawrence's 2006 Web site posting, "Rapid growth in an urban area certainly adds complexities to the issue, but aircraft builders have a right to safe, convenient access to facilities where they can make these flights."

Terry Frazier, president of one of the two local chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said the Velocity planes were not unusual and had been around for a while.

He said "it would be a shame" if experimental aircraft were banned from the airport.

"I don't think, personally, tagging the personal-built aircraft to be restricted from certain airports is right," he said. "I don't know where you stop if you go down that road."

Lawrence maintained that amateur aircraft aren't riskier than aircraft made by manufacturers.

"They have comparable records," he said. "It would be like saying we need to ban your personal cars and only buses and taxi cabs can drive in your neighborhood."

Review-Journal writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at [email protected] or 702- 383-0308.

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