It’s impossible to know anything for sure about the size of the amateur-built airplane fleet. The fleet seems to be growing, but has the recession stopped or slowed growth? Are we just now feeling delayed effects of the recession?
By definition and regulation each homebuilt is unique, a one-of-a-kind airplane. No matter how complete the kit, the finished airplane is still the singular product of a builder. No matter how closely the builder follows the plans or instructions the airplane remains a unique creation in the eyes of the FAA.
Homebuilts are registered with the FAA when they receive their airworthiness certificate so that gives us some idea of how many E-AB airplanes there are. But registration numbers are a very poor measure of fleet size.
The historical problem with aircraft registration is that once an airplane was registered it remained on the roles until somebody told the FAA to remove it. It didn’t matter if the airplane was retired, stuck in a barn, rotting on a tiedown, or even destroyed in an accident, it remained registered until it was unregistered.
A couple years ago the FAA set a three-year limit on aircraft registration. Now an airplane and its N-number disappear from the registry if the owner does not re-register the airplane every three years. We are nearing the completion of the first three-year cycle so eventually the FAA will post more accurate—and much smaller numbers—of registered aircraft.
For now to gauge the size of any aircraft fleet, including E-AB, we can look at the inflated registration numbers and also the FAA’s annual survey of active airplanes. The FAA conducts the activity survey to try to determine how many airplanes actually fly, and how many hours they fly, in what kind of weather and for what purpose. The survey, like any survey, contains some error in absolute totals, but since the same survey techniques have been used for years the errors should be pretty consistent from year to year.
But there is a couple year delay in availability of both registration and activity survey data. The most recent complete listings are for the calendar year 2010 and the FAA says the 2011 survey should be complete by the end of this year.
The FAA reports that in 2008, the year the recession in general aviation began in the fall, there were 36,032 registered E-AB fixed wing airplanes. Of those airplanes the survey determined 19,767 were active, meaning they flew at least once during the year.
For 2010, two years into the recession, the FAA reports 35,717 registered E-AB airplanes and 21,270 of those were active.
The smaller number of registered E-AB in 2010 makes sense because re-registration will shrink the number of all types of registered aircraft. And the growth of 1,503 active airplanes from 2008 to 2010 is believable. That amounts to about 7 percent growth in fleet size over 2 years, which jibes with my observations.
But it seems certain that airplane homebuilding did not escape the recession and I believe it is likely that there is a delayed effect. Most E-AB projects take at least a couple of years–and most take longer than that–to complete and fly. So a person who bought a kit before the recession would not be registering it or flying it until years into the recession. Kit and aircraft plans sales almost certainly slowed during the recession but that number can’t be measured yet.
One of the few specific indicators of E-AB building is the counter on Van’s website that shows the number of RVs completed and flying. That number was 8,424 on Monday, October 14, but even that is not a complete statistic because it represents only the Vans builders who report finishing the airplane. I would think most RV builders add their airplane to the counter, but certainly some don’t.
Kit manufacturers, like the airplanes their kits become, are an individualistic lot and have no organized system to report numbers of kit sales. In fact, it would be hard to define what a kit sale is. Many builders begin by ordering a low-cost basic component of the kit such as a tail surface first. Is that a kit sale? Yes, sort of. But knowing that number would not be meaningful to help know the number of complete kits sold because not all partial kit buyers complete the purchase and the airplane. And then there are scratch built airplanes that are totally under the radar until the builder receives an airworthiness certificate. No way to even guess how many scratch building projects are in progress.
I had a chance to chat with Dynon Avionics president Robert Hamilton about the impact of the recession on E-AB and he confirmed what I believed to be true. Dynon is the volume leader in complete flat glass avionics and autopilot systems for E-AB so its sales reflect overall building activity. Robert said Dynon sales did slump during the depth of the recession but beginning this year sales are rebounding. For obvious competitive reasons Robert is not giving me absolute numbers, but he said Dynon’s sales growth for this year is solid. Some of that growth may be taking market share from other avionics makers, but Robert believes most of the increase reflects an upturn in airplane building.
Most of us think of aviation as a highly regulated activity, and in many respects it is. But in reality there is much more accurate and current data available about the number of just about any other type of vehicle and we are left to estimate the true number of airplanes. The good news that Robert confirmed for me is that E-AB is in fact bouncing back from the depths of the recession. That’s what I had hoped was happening, so it’s good to have confirmation.