Several of the 12 recommendations urge the FAA to change the rules. Actually, the NTSB wants the FAA to make new rules, because the regulations governing E-AB have been very broad and accommodating. So far the FAA has taken the term “experimental” seriously and builders have been given wide latitude to design and build airplanes that conform to generally accepted aircraft standards. There is no long list of specific rules that a builder must satisfy as there is for standard certified airplanes. And that’s how it must be if an E-AB is to be truly experimental.
The FAA’s attitude toward E-AB is uniquely American. No other country gives builders so much freedom to create airplanes of their own design, or to modify the plans or kits supplied by others. Each E-AB airplane is unique in the FAA’s eyes, a one-off that represents the concept, workmanship and basic skills of the builder.
The NTSB took note of the almost total freedom homebuilders in America enjoy and compared that to what’s going on in Canada and Europe. You won’t be surprised that builders in those other countries work under many, many more regulations. And you shouldn’t be surprised that there is a difference in safety records. The restrictions placed on E-AB in Europe and Canada do apparently contribute to a better safety record, and the NTSB would like to see similar regulations applied to builders here.
That attitude goes to the core of what EAA, and the American spirit for that matter, is all about. It is undeniable that regulations work when the objective is safety in exchange for the freedom to innovate and fly an airplane of your own creation.
We can see how very strict regulations have made the U.S. airline system the safest in the world, and safer than I ever imagined possible. And that makes sense. A person buying an airline ticket has no interest in the joy of flight, or the dream of creating an airplane that suits your own desires. That passenger just wants to get to his destination safely and on time.
If we were to impose airline regulations on personal flying safety would improve—and personal flying would end, because those regulations can’t accommodate it. That is the threat hidden in the NTSB report. New rules can in fact improve safety, but they will steal the soul of homebuilding.
Homebuilders are not daredevils. They don’t want to die in an airplane crash. But we do demand the chance to try our own ideas and creations. Taking some added risk to achieve a goal, to fly a dream, is absolutely essential to keep E-AB exciting and growing.
Over the years the EAA has worked closely with the FAA, and more recently with the NTSB, to identify areas of special safety concern and we have informed builders of how to avoid unnecessary risk. It has been a great relationship with education being the tool to enhance safety, not regulation.
But I fear that situation may be changing. With the growth of the E-AB fleet the total number of accidents stands out. And while other types of flying have all shown safety improvement, it’s difficult to document a similar trend in E-AB. That means the people who regulate aviation need a new target, and E-AB is at or near the top of the list.
I know that EAA will continue to work with the FAA and NTSB on all personal flying safety issues, but it’s also time to understand that our interests may be diverging.
When safety moves ahead of freedom to innovate and fly your dream, E-AB can never be the same. And if path to improved safety is European style regulation, it’s time for EAA members to fight back.