The Internet & Homebuilt Aircraft Accidents

By Scott Spangler on February 28th, 2010

Nall Report The sharp increase in the number of accidents involving amateur-built experimental aircraft is the most disturbing piece of data in the recently released 2009 Nall Report. Published by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, it dissected and analyzed 2008’s GA accidents to identify trends and factors.

Overall, the GA accident rate adjusted proportionally to 2008’s decreased flight time. Homebuilts, however, are about 10 percent of the GA fleet, so their accident and fatality numbers contribute to the overall GA safety rate. Remove—or reduce—the homebuilt data, and GA would have had a much safer year. 

HB Accident Succinctly, per 100,000 flight hours, in 2008 the homebuilt accident rate  was 5x higher than store-bought airplanes. The fatal rate was 7x higher. Contributing to this is the interesting—but not surprising—fact that nearly twice as many homebuilt accidents were caused by mechanical problems and other causes that often start with a sudden loss of power.

It should be no surprise that this has captured the attention of many, and it won’t be a surprise when they attempt to remedy the problem with an online education effort. Before they invest too much in this, however, I suggest some research because, it seems to me, the Internet could well be a contributing factor to homebuilt accidents. Here’s my logic.

From first-hand experience, I know that amateur aircraft builders have a lot of questions that usually start with How do I…? How do these parts…? And, Is this right?

Chapter builder Today, it seems to me, most of these questions are broadcast online, often accompanied with digital photos. The answers come from the other members of these  online communities of builders. Certainly, this is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. Builders need to get face-to-face with their peers and old hands, preferably in the shop.

Before the Internet, this is where builders got answers to their questions. And because they were homebuilders, after the Q&A and a cup of coffee, they’d often poke and prod the rest of the project, one proudly showing off his work and the other looking at it with a critical eye and pointing out problems that could lead to an accident if not corrected. Doing this online, in a close-up digital photo, is impossible.

Even better, in the movement’s early days, building airplanes united homebuilders in a face-to-face community, an EAA chapter. One member would host a meeting at his shop so everyone had a chance to admire his craftsmanship, share skills, and work as a group to make  homebuilts the best they could be. This still happens, naturally, but not like it once did.

Tech_Counselor_logo When kits started to replace scratch building from plans, chapters started to evolve. A good many of them became more social, because that’s the members’ primary shared interest. This led to a brain drain because the hardcore homebuilders didn’t have a reason to leave their shops. When they got lonely, they joined an online community of their peers. Still, most chapters have an   EAA Technical Counselor and EAA Flight Advisor.

The hard part is getting new builders to join a social group so they can meet these helpful, knowledgeable friendly, advisors who are eager to help—and invite them over for coffee and questions. This is a conundrum EAA has been attempting to solve for some time.

Some might say that the Internet is a suitable source of education and information, and that the airworthiness inspection is the face-to-airplane time to catch—and correct—problems. That might be the case, if the builder had to dismantle the airplane into component pieces so the inspector could see that the builder had done something improperly. These inspections rarely get beyond the paperwork or under the skin.

Safety is a vexing problems for all aspects of aviation, but especially so for homebuilts, which is why they must carry a passenger warning that says  flying in them carries greater risk.

Regulating safety is only effective after the fact. Prevention is the ultimate, effective remedy, but it depends on a human trait often in short supply: personal responsibility.  And that’s something you cannot get online. –Scott Spangler


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6 Responses to “The Internet & Homebuilt Aircraft Accidents”

  1. Roy Evans II Says:

    Excellent post!

    One thing I would like to see analyzed is the experimental crash rate in builder/operator versus purchaser/operator incidents. Personally, I wonder how many of these accidents are caused by pilots purchasing the ‘hottest, fastest, newest’ homebuilt that was completed by someone else, thereby eliminating the working knowledge of the aircraft’s construction and systems. Another thing to think about is how many builders are, what you may call, mechanically-inclined or not.

  2. Scott Says:

    Analysis requires accurate data, which no one is collecting. Maybe the growing accident rate will change this. Until now, most seemed content with anecdotal evidense and whet-finger estimations.

    I, too, would like to see the break down between builder and second owner, and add those airplanes built by hired guns for pilots with more money than time.

    Another interesting data point would be flight time, both total, last 30 to 90 days, and time in type. The old saw is that builders are too busy working to fly, until their project is done.

    To be honest, mechanical ability doesn’t have a lot to do with building and airplane today because most of them are precut and drilled kits. Perhaps more imporant is attention to detail, like making sure you clean all of the crap out of a fuel tank before you Proseal it shut.

    It will be interesting to see how the homebuilding community addresses this problem, and I’ll keep an eye on it.

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  6. Hans Says:

    Excellent article. Recent information published by Sport Aviations seems to indicate that especially high performance experimentals – equipped with modern glass cockpits – are more prone to such accidents as more conventional experimentals.

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