Amateur Accidents

Why do homebuilts and their pilots come to harm so often? Peter looks at a variety of accidents and spots some alarming trends.

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.

Two days later, another biplane, this one an 85 percent replica of a Curtiss FIIC-2 Goshawk, a vintage fighter and dive bomber, crashed. The airplane, which had never before flown, was equipped with a nine-cylinder, 280-hp Lycoming R-680 radial engine. Near the end of what was supposed to be a taxi test on the runway, the engine surged and the airplane became airborne, veered to the left, stalled and crashed, killing the front-seat builder-pilot. The rear-seat passenger, a 9,000-hour ATP, who survived, told investigators that he had had no intention of flying in the airplane, which in his opinion was unsafe because "the ailerons did not have full travel and … the strakes were hitting the flying wires." It appeared that the surging of the engine might have been due to a buildup of oil residue on the propeller governor drive shaft, which caused it to stick. Post-mortem examination of the pilot revealed residues of Tylenol and Benadryl in his blood. Benadryl was found by one medical study to have a more adverse effect on driving performance than alcohol. The NTSB report does not specify the amount of each substance needed to achieve similar results.

On July 24th, a Giles G-202, a competition aerobatic airplane, apparently stalled and spun while arriving at Wittman Field in Oshkosh for the big EAA fly-in commercially known as AirVenture. The pilot, who flew for a major airline and had nearly 22,000 hours, had previously owned a Pitts, had flown an Extra for a couple of hours before flying the Giles, and had logged 35 hours in the Giles. The NTSB cited as a factor his relative lack of familiarity with the airplane, although 35 hours seems like enough to create familiarity in a highly experienced pilot. A Luscombe pilot who had followed the Giles on the way into Wittman Field said that it was flying about 90 mph and was very nose high; but airplanes designed for inverted flight, with symmetrical airfoils and zero wing incidence, naturally appear nose-high when flying slowly, and 90 mph is not excessively slow for an airplane with as low a wing loading-probably around 15 pounds per square foot-as the Giles has when flown single-pilot.

On the same day, a Kolb Sling Shot, another ultralight having a Seabee configuration similar to that of the Challenger, crashed out of a stall-spin while attempting a dead-stick forced landing. The cause of the accident was fuel starvation, according to investigators, who determined that the cut-off end of a loose fuel vent line was free to come into contact with a flexible neoprene pad, forming an airtight seal and choking off fuel flow to the engine.

On July 26th, a Glasair III approaching Wittman Field stalled and spun while making S-turns for spacing on final approach. Accident investigators found no anomalies in the airframe or engine and the NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was an inadvertent stall spin. Oddly enough, however, the lawyer whom the pilot's family hired to sue a company that had recently performed maintenance on the engine was named Stephen Lawyer.

Two days later, the non-pilot owner of a Barnett J4B gyroplane that had been built by someone else, and who had omitted to "hang" the aircraft from its rotor mast to determine its balance characteristics, found it to be nose-heavy on its first flight. He corrected this situation-the accident report does not say how-and flew again, this time for about an hour. Returning to the field, however, he lost control of the craft and crashed. The NTSB attributed the accident to his inexperience, but implied that noseheaviness might have had something to do with it.

On July 30th, a Glastar, a high-wing, fixed-gear airplane, crashed vertically into mountainous terrain when its 68-year-old pilot lost control for undetermined reasons while cruising at around 13,000 feet on the way back from Oshkosh. Investigators thought the electric trim actuator might have been in the full nose-down position. The pilot's son-in-law reported that he had complained of shortness of breath a week earlier. The NTSB report does not mention hypoxia as a possible factor, though it does come to mind.

The next, and last, day of that month, a Lancair 360 with the owner-builder and a flight instructor aboard flew into an area of Level Three to Level Five thunderstorms off the Atlantic coast of Georgia. The flight was conducted under IFR, and a radar controller had repeatedly warned the pilot of heavy weather ahead. After the airplane disappeared from radar, a Coast Guard search plane located floating debris on the ocean surface. The body of the owner was recovered, but that of the instructor, who was the pilot in command because the owner did not have a valid medical certificate, was not.

That was one month. True, it was a month with an unusual amount of amateur-built activity, what with good summer weather and the Oshkosh fly-in. The accidents I have described were all fatal; there were also various nonfatal accidents and incidents involving amateur-built types. It is striking, however, that the proportion of homebuilts among the fatal accidents is considerably higher than among the nonfatal ones. The NTSB lists 283 accidents and incidents that month; 42 of these involved homebuilts. Fifty of the accidents involved one or more fatalities; twelve of these involved homebuilts. In other words, 30 of 233 nonfatal accidents involved homebuilts, whereas 12 of 50 fatal ones did. Certified airplanes of course fly far more hours.

What I find striking about the fatal accidents involving homebuilts is the relatively high proportion that occur on first flights or inadvertent flights, or involve inexperienced or unlicensed pilots; the high proportion of stall-spin or loss-of-control accidents; and the comparatively high proportion of events involving gross mechanical problems such as structural or engine failure or marginal flying qualities. It is doubtful that much can be done about these problems. Amateur builders voluntarily turn their backs on the benefits provided by certification and professional construction and maintenance in order to experience an adventure and, when all goes well, a satisfaction, that are of a wholly different order from those of flying factory-built airplanes. Amateur builders replace FAA safeguards with a community of mutual support and shared information, and certainly get greater enjoyment out of their communications with like-minded builder-pilots than the owners of factory airplanes get from receiving ADs from the Feds.

No death is negligible; each is the extinction of a world. Some must be accepted as the price of not staying in bed; others appear painfully, absurdly unnecessary. The operation of amateur-built airplanes produces a disproportionate number of the latter kind. In so many cases, the fatal outcome proceeds from some trivial piece of stupidity, ignorance, carelessness or momentary bravado. Nevertheless, husbands, wives and children pay the price; to them it is probably cold comfort to hear their friends intone that the victim "died doing what he loved." Nobody loves dying.

This article is based solely on the National Transportation Safety Board's report of the accidents and is intended to bring the issues raised to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.