Dick Van Grunsven talks RV Safety - March 2011

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Loyal readers of the RVator (may it rest in peace) are well aware that of late I have been writing quite a bit about flying safety in RVs. I have been concentrating on the importance of sharpening pilot proficiency and skills as a means of improving safety/avoiding and mitigating accidents. I obviously recognize that mechanical factors also play into the homebuilt safety issue, but prefer to address one issue at a time.

A couple of months ago I (we) received an E-mail invitation to attend an FAA sponsored meeting to discuss Amateur Built Aircraft safety. In addition to FAA personnel and representatives of EAA, AOPA, and the insurance industry, invitations were sent to representatives of the five kit companies whose aircraft have the most accidents. Not the highest accident rate, but the greatest number of accidents. Because Van’s has by far the largest number of flying Amateur-Built (A-B) aircraft in the country, we unfortunately rank in the top five. Though I think that we can show that the RV accident rate is less than for A-B in general, it is appropriate that we participate in a process to help eliminate accidents. I was able to attend the meeting in conjunction with a vacation, and Van’s also provided Mike Seager with an airline ticket so that his valuable Transition Training experience could be added to the venue.
The meeting was held in Sebring, FL on the opening day of the LSA Expo held at the Sebring Airport. It was rather brief, just 3 hours, and was organizational in nature. Primarily, the FAA has reviewed the history of EAB accidents which showed a fatal accident rate around 6 to 8 time higher than overall GA, and that this rate had not improved in recent years. The FAA also pointed out that they expect EAB accident to be somewhat higher than GA because of the very nature of this aviation activity. (Uncertified designs, amateur construction, no production QC, etc.) This consideration aside, their consensus is that the rate is inexcusably high and must be improved. The reason for forming the FAA/Industry committed was to bring a wide range of resources to bear on the problem. The FAA chairman rather succinctly stated, something to this effect: "
We are asking you to help fix this problem. If you can’t or won’t, we have means of doing so, and you won’t like them—they would essentially put you out of business". *
*This was not meant as a threat, but rather as a simple statement of fact. Consider: The FAA has permitted us to build and fly EAB aircraft with almost none of the requirements and restriction which apply to type certificated aircraft. Over many years we have all benefited from this freedom of opportunity. As with most privileges there are corresponding responsibilities. If the Amateur built community cannot find ways to operate safely, then the FAA will step in. Just how they might do this is open to speculation. Consider how safety is achieved in the highest level of commercial aircraft; the airlines. These aircraft are built, maintained, and flown by TRAINED professionals. The obvious means that the FAA could use to improve A-B safety would be to mandate much higher levels of training and testing in the construction and piloting of A-B aircraft.
Since then, there as been an increasing amount of press devoted to this subject:
The May ’11 issue of Kitplanes magazine includes a sidebar article by Dave Martin (former editor) who had attended the Sebring meeting. His summarization of the meeting began with the FAA stated fatal accident rate for Amateur Built aircraft being 6-8 times that of certified aircraft.
The same Kitplanes issue has a very good article by Doug Rozendaal about transition training, and prominently references Mike Seager’s RV training throughout the text.
AOPA president Craig Fuller has stated his concern about the poor A-B safety record.
FAA administrator Randy Babbitt announced the kick off of a five-year "Safety Stand Down" program aimed at reducing GA fatal accidents by 10%. He is initially targeting the homebuilt and experimental aircraft as "low hanging fruit"; the easiest place to make the greatest gains.
At about the same time, the EAA had a bullet on their webpage stating: "Amateur Built hours flown up, accident rate down."
That’s adds a happy tone to an otherwise sad song. But, who’s right? Technically speaking, all are.
I believe that humorist Mark Twain once quipped: "There are liars, damn liars, and statistics." After spending many hours pouring through NALL Reports and NTSB accident files, I tend to agree. Statistics can be confusing and can easily be quoted, accurately but not completely, to prove or disprove almost any point.
For example: The industry standard, used by the FAA & AOPA, to determine aircraft accident rates is that of counting the number of accidents per 100,000 hours of flight operation. Conversely, I have seen reports from other sources where the A-B accidents are rated against the number of aircraft in the fleet. The two are by no means the same. If an airplane sits in a hangar, it cannot have a flight accident. If it flies very little, it has less exposure to accidents than an airplane that flies a lot. Typical A-B aircraft almost certainly fly much less than the average GA aircraft which includes trainers and rental aircraft. Because of this, rating A-B accidents on the total number of registered A-B aircraft will yield more favorable results than rating them against hours of operation; by a factor of 2 to 3. Rating on this basis only distorts the facts and could foster apathy.
There is a tendency to seek out inevitable discrepancies in reports, and to completely dismiss the findings as a result. We must resist this temptation. Our purposes are best served by trusting the core data and conclusions. These clearly indict homebuilt safety. Various interpretations of data show the homebuilt fatal accident rate anywhere between 5 and 8 times higher than overall GA. While this rate may have shown a downtrend over a period of time, the simple fact is that it is still unacceptably high.
Lets go back to the reference FAA administrator Babbitt made about Amateur Built accident being low hanging fruit. The 20010 NALL report, covering 2009 accidents, states that 30% of all fatal GA accidents were in amateur built aircraft, while they flew only 7% of the total hours. The 2008 figures were 26% of the fatal accident and 5% of the total time flown. On the surface we might assume that any change A-B accidents would have little overall effect because of their small percent of hours flown. Not so! If we could eliminate half of the A-B fatal accidents, this alone would reduce the overall GA fatal accident rate to 85% of what it was. FAA administrator Babbitt (above) was targeting a 10% fatal accident reduction. This is what he meant by "low hanging fruit". The accident rate in the balance of GA could remain the same; and we in the homebuilt sector could alone make more than 10% overall difference. Unfortunately, even if we eliminated half of our fatal accidents, we’d still be as much as 3 time worse than GA average. So you see, we’ve got a daunting task ahead of us.
Its easy for the majority of us in the RV community, or the homebuilt community, to point out that only the bottom few percentage of our pilots have the accidents; they are making the rest of us look bad. That can also said about the Homebuilt sector of GA; we are making them look bad. When our A-B community was very small, our accident numbers then were not as noticeable; not high enough to noticeably affect the overall tally. Now that we are becoming a larger portion of GA, our numbers are becoming too noticeable.  This probably explains why the FAA, AOPA, etc. are now becoming more concerned and involved.
Safety has always been a topic of concern in the homebuilt community. Over the years, I don’t think that most of us knew how relatively safe or dangerous this activity was---credible statistics were usually either not available or not vividly portrayed. For reasons given above, homebuilt safety is now becoming the center of attention.
How about RV accidents in relation to overall A-B? The best conclusion I can derive shows the RV fatal accident rate to be about half that of overall A-B. This should not be viewed as a reason for complacency. Being only "half of BAD" is still nothing to be proud of.
OK, I realize that the vast majority of you reading this are good, conscientious RV pilots or wannabe RV pilots. I know that many of you are alarmed over the number of A-B, particularly RV, accidents. You probably feel powerless to do anything about it other than assuring that your airplane and your piloting are as safe as possible. (Serious reflection may detect areas of needed self-improvement) It is difficult to find ways of identifying and reaching out to others who might be at higher risk. Some of those means might include helping others to assure the mechanical perfection of their planes, sharing ideas about honing flying skills, and encouraging those new to RV flying to seek good transition training.
Earlier I had referenced the high level of training in the airline industry as a primary reason for their excellent safety record. We are all aware that no special training is required of us by the FAA to fly an A-B aircraft. FARs requires that we only have a valid license and medical. We don’t even need to have flown within the preceding 90 days to solo our new A-B. Even our BFR can be almost two years old, and may be taken a vastly different airplane.
Wise builders remain proficient, or regain piloting proficiency, before first flying their A-B aircraft. Ideally, they obtain transition training from a
qualified instructor. Fortunately for RV builders and buyers, several instructors are available offering transition training specifically for RVs. The most experienced of these is Mike Seager. We have long assumed that real safety benefits accrue from this type training. Only recently did we attempt to measure these benefits. Mike has kept good records on the approximately 4000 pilots he is trained, and has tried to track their accidents. By making some projections base on estimated flight times, it would appear that his "graduates" have had fatal accidents somewhere in the vicinity of 10% the overall RV average.
Just ponder that though for a moment…We are always looking for ways of making perhaps a 10% safety improvement. The above suggests a 1000% improvement, not a 10%. This is HUGE!
I trust that students of Alex DeDominicis, Brian Moentenich, and other RV transition instructors fare very well also. For a pilot about to begin flying an RV, there is no substitute for transition training with a good RV qualified instructor. For anyone already flying an RV, but perhaps not as proficient as they should be, refresher training with one of them is a good idea. Or, just self-practicing the same things that they teach will help.
The key concept being that just meeting FAA minimum requirements is probably not enough.
In the coming weeks and months I plan to add safety related segments to this column. Please excuse me if I sometimes repeat myself. Blame it on age, or just to my passion for sharing with everyone my understanding that some specific flying skills are essential, and how these contribute to flight safety. I hope that my sometimes-rambling diatribe will inspire others more competent and eloquent to send in their comments and suggestions. We learn from each other.
Stay Tuned!