In the grand scheme of American aviation, at least as the FAA sees it, amateur-built aircraft aren’t even on the radar sweeping through regulated skies. Created in home workshops and comparatively unfettered by the bureaucracy, these flying machines have been the nucleus of aviation’s success for more than half a century. And with the FAA’s second attempt at updating the policy that oversees the certification of these important machines, it looks like this will continue for another half century.
For awhile, I wasn’t so sure. The FAA’s first attempt (presented in greater depth in Homebuilding: Complexity is the Price of Progress) brought ineffective bureaucratic complexity to homebuilding. What was always simple and straightforward would soon suffer, it seemed, dead-tree demands imposed on facets of aviation that shine more brightly on the regulatory radar scope. Fortunately, the family of amateur builders, its manufacturing relatives, and their representatives raised their collective voice and said, “Hey, wait a minute!”
What happened next honestly surprised me: The bureaucrats listened! (EAA provides an excellent summary of the new policy, or you can read FAA ORDER 8130.2F CHG 4 and Advisory Circular 20-27G for yourself.) They preserved all that was good about homebuilding, keeping it a fertile breeding ground for aviation innovators and not impeding their creative processes with unnecessary bureaucracy.
What the FAA added were necessary updates that relate the 51-percent rule to what’s going on today. This is most apparent in the task checklist that measures the builder’s percentage of work. The number of check columns has doubled, adding a column for commercial assistance and bifurcating the builder box into assembly and fabrication.
And, yes, for all those hangar lawyers out there in aviation land, the AC explicitly defines fabrication: “…to perform work on any material, part, or component, such as layout, bending, countersinking, straightening, cutting, sewing, gluing/bonding, layup, forming, shaping, trimming, drilling, deburring, machining, applying protective coatings, surface preparation and priming, riveting, welding, or heat treating, and transforming the material, part, or component toward or into its finished state.”
The FAA’s other positive step was grandfathering kits now under construction and those on its existing list of aircraft that have have passed the Fed’s 51-percent evaluation. Even more important, the FAA has created a single team, whose members know homebuilts, to evaluate new kits. In the past, this inspection was done by line airworthiness inspectors who may have been looking at his or her first homebuilt.
In short, from now on amateur-built aviation will now be working from a level playing field, and the FAA inspectors who will be enforcing the regs will be guided by more definitive policy, which will more easily identify those trying to bypass the spirit and letter of the 51-percent rule without impeding those who embody it. And that can only be good for the future of aviation. –Scott Spangler