High First Flight Risks with Experimental Aircraft, NTSB Study Shows

A study presented by the board's staff May 22 found 10 of 102 accidents in 2011 involving new experimental amateur-built aircraft occurred during the planes' first flights.

The National Transportation Safety Board met May 22 to consider a draft safety study about experimental amateur-built (E-AB) aircraft and issued recommendations to improve safety for this category, with the key one calling for transition training for the pilots. NTSB offered a live webcast of the meeting and steadily tweeted updates, allowing online visitors to read some of the study's findings.

The numbers are alarming. During 2011, only one out of 224 experimental amateur-built aircraft accidents was caused by structural failure, while loss of control in flight and powerplant failures were the leading causes of accidents. Ten of 102 accidents involving new experimental amateur-built aircraft occurred during those planes' first flights.

"One of the most important findings of this study is the number of seasoned and experienced pilots getting into accidents so early in the life of structurally sound airplanes," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "The recommendations we issue today can improve safety while encouraging the continued growth of this innovative and vibrant segment of the aviation community."

The study examined incidents in the past decade, in-depth investigations of all 224 E-AB aircraft accidents during 2011 (54 of which were fatal), data from an EAA survey of more than 5,000 E-AB owners and builders, and discussions with representatives from the EAA, FAA, E-AB aircraft builders and owners, kit manufacturers, and representatives of E-AB clubs.

Because pilots who did not have transition training to an E-AB aircraft were over-represented in accidents, the study concluded transition training for pilots is key to reducing in-flight loss-of control accidents.

According to NTSB's announcement of the meeting, about 33,000 of the approximately 224,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States are classified as E-ABs. They can be built from a prefab kit, existing plans, or a builder's unique design; building them requires an average of about 2,000 hours, according to the study. It said E-AB designers and builders are an innovative force within aviation, but obtaining flight instruction in an E-AB aircraft is more difficult than in traditional aircraft.

The board will conduct a "General Aviation Safety: Climbing to the Next Level" free public forum June 19-20 in Washington, D.C. "Each year, hundreds of people are killed in general aviation crashes, and thousands more are injured," said Hersman. "Tragically, the circumstances leading to these accidents are often repeated over and over, year after year. If we are going to prevent future fatalities and injuries, these common causes must be addressed."

The forum also will be available as a live webcast. It will be held in the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center located at 429 L'Enfant Plaza SW in Washington.

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