Homebuilding: Complexity is the Price of Progress

By Scott Spangler on February 16th, 2009

KitAircraft After reviewing thousands of comments about the fed’s proposed policy and procedural changes affecting the 51-percent rule, the Amateur-Built Aviation Rulemaking Committee completed its mission, submitted its final recommendations to the FAA, and called it a day. 

Its mission was to address the problem of pilots who circumvented the rules by hiring a pro to build them an airplane.

We won’t know how the FAA will respond until it publishes the new policy (at or just before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009), but what’s almost certain is that builders (real and pretend) won’t like it. Based on past experience with government, it probably will not stray far from the proposed changes the FAA released before EAA AirVenture 2008. What the FAA proposed was immediately criticized as complex, a burden that would stifle innovation.

face-mirror Perhaps. But why should homebuilding be exempt from the rule that affects every aspect of American life? Complexity is the price of progress, of innovation, of finding easier, cheaper, and more efficient ways of doing things. Regardless of where we reside, Wall Street or Airport Drive, our  actions determine our daily reality. In searching for someone to blame, we should first look in the mirror, because the actions of a few reflect on us all.

When the 51-percent rule took effect in 1952, America was still basking in the afterglow of its unprecedented war-time manufacturing growth. It was a time when we made things, and in many cases simple rules effectively regulated complex activities, like building an airplane in your garage.

As time progressed, Americans, always the innovators,  looked for better, easier, cheaper, and more efficient  ways to do things. Often this meant using ready-made parts and paying others, often low-cost foreign labor, to do the work we once did for ourselves. (Which is why the outrage that followed Cessna’s plan to build the 162 Skycatcher in China surprised me.)

Over this same period economics became the principle factor and whenever possible people stretched–or violated–the rules to save a buck, or make one. Regardless the activity, paying taxes or building an airplane, everyone knew it was going on. Making things worse, we looked the other way, often hiding behind the shield of “do as I say, not as I do.”

As often happens, such problems became to large too ignore. When both sides finally acknowledged the problem of professionally-built kit airplanes, one side, pilots, urged the other, the FAA, to enforce the existing rule rather than institute new, complex requirements. Unfortunately, because both sides for too long looked the other way, that’s not an option.

51_breakdown Actions may speak louder than words (which is how we got into the mess in the first place), but in today’s media rich world, where the politics of public perception reign supreme, words count as action.  And nothing says “We’re doing something” like complexity. So it’s my bet that homebuilders will need to pass the 20/20/11 test.

To prove that they created an airplane for their own recreation and education, amateur builders must prove that they performed at least 51 percent of the construction tasks, with fabrication and assembly each accounting for at least 20 percent, and the remaining 11 percent from either category.

Hangar lawyers criticized the FAA for not defining “fabrication” and “assembly.” Me thinks these people doth protest too much. Any fifth grader knows that “fabrication” means you make something, like a part. “Assembly” means putting something, like those parts you made, together. Precise definitions, as any lawyer will tell you, are where loopholes live.  

No matter what the new FAA policy says, it’s a good bet that homebuilding will not be what it was. Growing for more than a half century, it is no longer an adolescent industry. With its maturity comes responsibility, and that isn’t a simple thing.

The FAA’s new policy means more work for everyone from kit manufacturers to builders to commercial assistance centers. Professional builders will have to find new ways around the rules, and the FAA will have to figure out a way to tell real amateur builders from pretenders.

What matters most, however, is not what used to be. That’s behind us. What matters is what will be, how our actions will shape the future. For the new policy to work as intended, we must not look the other way. Doing that means we’ll soon repeat the process now nearly done. —Scott Spangler

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4 Responses to “Homebuilding: Complexity is the Price of Progress”

  1. Joe Casey Says:

    I have always wondered (probably now too late) why the EAA and AOPA and everyone else in GA didnt push to re-define the 51% rule? My recollection (I am nearly 70, and been an EAA member for 40 years) is that Cessna, Piper, and Beech were building small aircraft back then, and pressed the FAA to limit outside production … sound familiar??… The big three haven’t been involved in small GA production for over 30 years, and IMHO, the best thing that could happen, would be to ALLOW certain qualified builders (i.e. IA mechanics) to construct any or all parts of approved kits… just my two cents worth.

    Joe Casey.. cfi, atp, a&p, & RV builder.

  2. Gig Giacona Says:

    What Progress? Most EXP-HB are no more complex than they were years ago. This entire set of rule making is because there are people breaking the rules that are already there by building ready to fly aircraft under the EXP-HB rules that are not built “for the recreation and education of the builder” but for profit for the builder.

  3. Scott Says:

    In all of my research I’ve found no evidence that manufacturers of certificated aircraft exerted any force to restrict what we today call “commercial assistance.” An era when manufacturers were building tens of thousands of small, single-engine airplanes a year, the comparative handfull, often less than a thousand, of homebuilts certificated each year posed little competition. What brought single-engine production to an end was over production, or a dearth of customers, depending one your perspective on the immutable laws of supply and demand.

    There was — and still is — an opportunity to allow professional builders to build kit airplanes for sale. That was the idea of the kit airplane category that, if I remember correctly, came into being when the FAA created the primary aircraft category. It never really worked because providing the oversight of the building process, to ensure construction quality — and safety — of those airplanes was more involved, and cost more, than people were willing to pay.

    It’s not an issue when the person building the airplane assumes the risk; the builder will do a good job because it is his or her life that’s on the line. When pilots buy an airplane, however, they expect a certain level of quality and safety for their money. Making sure they get it is the FAA’s job. At a fundamental level, it’s no different than a parent’s expectation that the toys they buy their children are not covered with lead-based paint.

    This oversight and assurance of a minimum level of safety is what makes pro-built kit airplanes complicated and expensive. No matter the background or experience of a pro builder, there are good ones and bad ones, hence the need for minimum standards.

    Homebuilts cover the range of complexity from tube and rag flivers to high-flying composite turboprops that out perform many store bought airplanes. Regardless their method of construction, poor workmanship can kill whether it is a bad weld or a sloppy layup.

    In the end it all comes down to is who assumes the risk and ensuring minimum safety through regulation. And you’re right that the forthcoming FAA amateur-built certification policy is all about people breaking the 51-percent rule.

    As we brace ourselves for the new policy, we should never forget that it takes two parties to break the rules, the person who builds a kit airplane for money, and the person who writes the check for it. Both are responsible, and we all pay the consequences.

  4. Chance of Better Aviation Future is 51% | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] awhile, I wasnt so sure. The FAAs 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 […]

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