By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman yesterday presented results of her agency's yearlong study into the causes of accidents involving experimental amateur-built (E-AB) aircraft at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012.
The NTSB study's results were the main focus of a detailed discussion including Hersman, EAA President/CEO Rod Hightower, and staff members of both organizations.
The study, conducted with EAA's participation, made several conclusions regarding ways to improve this segment's safety and focused on enhancing aircraft performance and testing documentation as well as pilot training.
Specifically, the NTSB identified expanding documentation requirements for initial aircraft airworthiness certification, verifying completion of Phase 1 flight testing, improving and facilitating pilots' access to transition training, flight-test data recording, and ensuring used E-AB buyers receive performance documentation as ways in which the segment's safety record can be improved.
Published last May, the study is the result of several methodologies, including analysis of 10 years of E-AB accidents, highly detailed examinations of E-AB accidents during 2011, in-depth discussions with kit manufacturers and type clubs, plus a survey of EAA members building or operating E-AB aircraft.
The NTSB's study came about as a result of some sobering statistics.
Among them: Although E-AB aircraft compose some 10 percent of the active GA fleet and about 4 percent of GA flight hours flown in the United States, they are involved in more than 20 percent of fatal accidents. When the NTSB dived down into 2011 accident data as part of its study, it discovered approximately 10 percent of accidents last year involving new E-ABs occurred on the aircraft's first flight.
And, when considering in-service E-ABs, a large proportion of accidents occur during the first flight by a new owner of a used E-AB aircraft.
There is good news, however, in the NTSB's study.
For example, structural problems leading to an accident are rare, according to the NTSB's study. "Accidents involving equipment failures or build problems are instead frequently associated with unique decisions made by an individual owner or builder," the NTSB noted.
"The majority of new E-AB aircraft are now built from commercial kits, a fact that has likely contributed to an overall improvement in the design and construction of E-AB aircraft."
Further, the safety board believes risks could be reduced if a proper flight test plan is followed during the new aircraft's initial flights.
Both kit manufacturers and the EAA have available detailed information on conducting Phase 1 testing of new E-ABs.
As the NTSB study notes, "Kit manufacturers also represent a potential source of valuable construction, flight testing, operation, and maintenance information."
Additionally, proper transition training is critical for both builders of new E-ABs and for buyers of used, existing examples.
That's because, according to the NTSB, "pilots of E-AB aircraft, on average, had significantly less flight experience in the type of aircraft they were flying" than "pilots of non-E-AB aircraft engaged in similar general aviation operations."
This problem is compounded by the fact, according to the NTSB, that used E-ABs often lack proper flight manuals and documentation.
Again, this is an area in which kit manufacturers and the EAA - as well as the builder - can help.
As a result of its study, the NTSB made 12 recommendations to the FAA. Most of them involved revising or emphasizing existing agency guidance - like advisory circulars-and non-regulatory actions, and the creation of a coalition of kit manufacturers, type clubs, and pilot and owner groups rather than creating restrictive new rules.
Similarly, the NTSB made four recommendations to EAA, including standardized flight-test data collection and ensuring kit builders and pilots have ready access to the association's Test Flying and Developing Pilot Operating Handbook.