As homebuilt airplanes become more and more numerous, they naturally figure more prominently in the accident statistics. As you might expect, they are more prone to accidents arising from design or construction errors than certified airplanes are. A look at their fatal accidents for a single month-July, 2001-reveals this pattern and others as well.
The first accident occurred on July 2nd. A Challenger II, a tandem two-seat ultralight of Seabee-like configuration, with a high wing and engine and a low boom supporting the empennage, struck trees during an attempted return to the airport when its engine failed shortly after takeoff. The pilot had flown the airplane very little-reportedly only two hours in the past year, and not at all within the past three or four months. Although it had been registered, the N-number was not painted on the airplane, and the required data plate was also absent. According to FAA records, in fact, it had never been licensed.
A witness to the accident, who had flown the airplane himself, said that when he flew it it had had a "severe yaw problem," and he had been afraid to fly it again. Poor directional stability is a known characteristic of the Challenger II with doors in place; it requires a good deal of attention to the rudder. The owner had added some vertical stabilizer area and a trim tab and had removed the doors, having been advised that doing so would alleviate the directional stability problem. The reason for the engine failure could not be found, but the pattern of the accident was classic enough; turnbacks with insufficient altitude have claimed the lives of countless pilots. The NTSB attributed the accident to the 100-hour pilot's lack of familiarity with the airplane.
On July 14th, a Mohawk 1, an ultralight whose configuration is similar to that of a Taylorcraft, crashed on its first flight with the owner at the controls. Another pilot had flown the airplane around the pattern earlier, but, finding the elevator extremely sensitive and the rudder ineffective, he returned to report that it was "OK for taxi, but not safe to fly." The owner then went out to taxi it and apparently became airborne inadvertently. He stalled and spun about half a mile from the airstrip.
On the same day, a commercial pilot died when the BD-5 he was flying struck the ground at high speed, apparently under control. The NTSB has not yet determined a probable cause of the accident, and few details are available. There was a witness, however, who was himself a pilot. He was driving down a highway when he saw the BD-5 cross in front of him in a climb, then turn back and head toward him, "moving really fast for its size." He noted that the airplane "weaved up and down, as well as left and right" as it approached. It struck the ground 50 yards in front of him, nose low and in a slight left turn, and immediately exploded.
Another accident for which a probable cause has not yet been determined involved a VariEze that crashed, with two aboard, near Palm Springs, California, on July 20th. The canard surface was missing from the debris field; it was located several days later half a mile from the accident site, having apparently separated from the airplane in flight.
On July 21st, a Kelly-D biplane lost its right upper wing panel while performing aerobatics that a witness characterized as "smooth" and probably not involving more than 3.5Gs. Examination of the wreckage revealed loose jam nuts on half a dozen bracing wires and an improperly glued wooden doubler on the wing spar, although it is not clear from the NTSB report whether what failed was the doubler or the spar itself. At the time of the accident, the airplane, which had been licensed in May, 2000, and had logged 60 hours, was for sale. The owner had bought the incomplete project in 1997 from another builder, who had begun it in 1984.