NTSB Study: Experimental Kit Planes Cause More Deaths Than Factory Planes

Experimental airplanes that are assembled from kits by hobbyists have been involved in more crashes and deaths than factory-built small aircraft, according to a new study issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Experimental airplanes like the one that Micron CEO Steve Appleton was piloting when he died earlier this year are over three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident, the report says. Out of the 102 accidents last year that involved these "kit" planes, 10 occurred the first time a pilot flew them. 

"This has been an issue for a while," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt at a hearing today in Washington. "It involves a lot of pilots. Hopefully we can drive the accident rate significantly down as a result of this study." There are roughly 224,000 general aviation aircraft in the U.S., and of that total, 33,000 were built from kits. Around 1,000 experimental airplanes are built every year. 

There are a number of reasons why these planes are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. Home-built planes that are assembled from kits are classified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as "experimental" and are not held to the same regulations as similar factory-built.

When an experimental plane is purchased and assembled, the pilots lack the ability to properly assess whether the plane is in working order. Additionally, the pilots who purchase home-built planes are often not prepared to fly them, according to the NTSB study. The FAA offers guidance on how pilots can test these planes, but the agency doesn't check to make sure that these tests are actually carried out. This is thought to be a reason behind engine failure being one of the biggest causes of experimental plane crashes. 

As a result of the study, the Safety Board voted to recommend that pilots of experimental planes be required to submit a flight-test plan to the FAA and test a new plane's fuel system prior to the aircraft's first flight. The NTSB also recommended that pilots record data from flight tests using the latest electronic gear in order to provide a detailed record of the aircraft's performance.

The study was not intended to discourage people from purchasing and building their own experimental planes, officials said. "The home-built segment of the market has helped drive innovations such as computerized cockpit electronics and the use of composite materials," said NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said after today's hearing. "They are the heartbeat of innovation."