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Builder Spotlight

January 2015 Issue

Insurance And Training

Just because you built it, doesn’t mean you’re ready to fly it.

One issue that comes up with building an aircraft is where and how the pilot learns to fly the aircraft. Many believe it's the old adage of "kick the tires and light the fires." But speaking from the insurance side…I don't think so.

When a person is working on their license, they are required to get training in an aircraft before they can fly it solo. The FAA also says we have to get endorsements or sign-offs to fly certain complex or high-performance models. And if we want to fly big, heavy, or turbine aircraft, the FAA often requires type ratings.

But when a person builds an aircraft, other than Phase 1 limitations, there aren't really any training requirements before they fly it for the first time. When the FAA or the Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) has inspected the aircraft and issued the temporary airworthiness certificate, if the pilot is current and qualified, they can jump in and go flying!

So I guess this article could end here. You can build and fly your aircraft without any training—but is that really smart?

Probably not. It seems to me that a better idea is to get a little training in the aircraft you built before you fly it for the first time. A new plane with a new pilot is a mix that sounds risky or even dangerous. This is the first flight of your new aircraft that just took three, five, or even ten or more years to build; do you want to risk having to start all over? Not me. I'm thinking that before I get my new SkySmith 2000 completed, I should embark on a training program that will make me comfortable in the aircraft.

Building a single-seat aircraft creates a training problem. How do you get dual in an aircraft that doesn't have two seats? Sometimes you need to find a "like" aircraft. A like aircraft could be a similar model to the aircraft you just built, like a Mustang II (Above) in place of a single-place Midget Mustang (Below). Or maybe it's an RV-6 instead of an RV-3. The key is similar performance and handling.

How Much Training is Necessary?

What kind and how much training will usually be specified when or if you are buying insurance for protecting your investment. The insurance requirements might include training in the same make and model or a "like" aircraft.

What is a like aircraft? And will you be able to find one to get training in?

A like aircraft is one that has comparable speeds, handling, gear, etc. to what you have built. The best, and first, choice is to get training in the same make and model aircraft. Sometimes a manufacturer might have a demo aircraft or trainer that they can provide for training. The FAA and EAA also have a waiver to allow training by qualified CFIs in their own Experimental aircraft, so often transition training programs are available.

But what if there aren't any model-specific training aircraft in your area? You might have to find something else that's close. A good example of close or like aircraft would be the Van's RV-6A and the Grumman AA-1A. While I know that the Grumman is not an exact replacement for the RV-6A, the basic size, sensitivity, and handling are close.

Close enough for whom, you ask? The insurance underwriters! Remember, most training requirements come from insurance underwriters.

As an insurance agent, I have had customers with lots of Grumman time be approved to fly off the restrictions in their RV-6A without any training. But that leniency will not happen if the pilot is low time; for example a private pilot with only 100 hours total PIC time and only 10 hours in a Grumman will still need to get type-specific, dual instruction.

It all depends on the pilot and the model of the aircraft. This might be a good time to mention that not all aviation insurance underwriters will provide coverage during the Phase 1 hours, or allow low-time pilots (less than 100 hours) to do the Phase 1 fly-off hours. Oh, and not all companies will allow a student pilot to fly an Experimental aircraft. So make sure when you are buying insurance for your newly completed aircraft you get quotes that pertain to your specific situation. Make sure you tell the broker all the details so you can be prepared.

Not everyone will be happy with the requirements an underwriter gives. I've had airline transport pilots (ATP) with thousands of hours flying jets be given a requirement to get dual in their newly completed Experimental aircraft. Some of these pilots do not take that requirement very well.

But after 30 plus years in the aviation insurance business, I have learned that a pilot's ratings and high time does not always mean highly qualified in the insured aircraft—especially when comparing big to small aircraft. Again, it depends on experience and currency in aircraft that are similar in size, shape, performance. and landing gear. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm thinking a Boeing 737 does not handle like the Lancair 360. I could be mistaken, but I don't think so.

So you're saving money building your aircraft by converting an automobile engine instead of putting out big bucks for a Lycoming or Continental. Great idea, but who's going to give you the operating advice for that engine? It is basically going to be an unknown from an underwriter's view. In fact, a few underwriters will not insure auto conversions. Doesn't mean you shouldn't convert an auto engine, but check ahead of time to see if you can get coverage, and if you can, who will be able to help you figure out how to operate it in the air.

When to Begin Training?

If at all possible, you should get training prior to the first flight and/or buying insurance. I know you want to learn to fly your own airplane, but oftentimes the underwriters don't want to insure you while you are training in your aircraft. Underwriters would like you to get your training at a school or FBO that has insurance with a different underwriter. They want you to get the experience and put the punishment of training on some other aircraft that they don't insure—then insure your aircraft with them. This is not always possible, but from the underwriter's perspective it's a good idea.

Getting training prior to the first flight or buying an aircraft does have advantages. Often it can result in less dual training requirements or a little better rate, and sometimes it can be the difference between even getting a quote. You would be amazed at the difficulty some people are having just getting a quote for their aircraft, period.

An example would be a 100-hour single engine pilot wanting to buy a retractable gear aircraft. If the pilot does not have any retractable-gear time, most underwriters will decline or pass on the quote. They don't want to take the risk of a newbie forgetting to put the wheels down. But if the pilot has about 25 hours of retractable-gear time, that could be enough for a few of the companies to offer a quote. It doesn't have to be retractable hours in anything special; it just needs to be retractable-gear time. Time in a Piper Arrow or a Cessna 172 RG counts as RG time the same way as RG time in a Cessna 421 or Piper Malibu.

Talking about retractable gear aircraft, don't get caught up in this experience thing. The newbies forget and so do the oldies. The number of gear-up landings is amazing, and many are done by high time and highly rated pilots. In fact, if you read one of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation reports, it actually states the following (and this is quoted directly from the AOPA ASF news brief): "This year's report also contains surprising findings about takeoff and landing accidents, which in 2001 accounted for 58% of all pilot-related GA accidents. Among other things, it reveals that airline transport pilots suffer a higher proportion of takeoff and landing accidents than student pilots, relative to each group's percentage in the pilot population." So experience doesn't mean you won't have a claim, problem, or an accident.

OK, so if you don't have access to training aircraft, go ahead and do the training in yours if you can. Be prepared for higher dual requirements and higher premiums. Also, training can be very difficult if you have a brand new aircraft with, let's say, a 40-hour Phase 1 fly off requirement. If you aren't qualified in the plane, how can you fly off the 40 hours? From the insurance side, you can't. Usually the FAA does not allow passengers during the fly-off hours, only essential crew, and as much as you stress that the CFI is essential crew, most new Experimental aircraft do not require two pilots to operate. The new advisory circular allowing an additional pilot for Phase 1 operations [See "Souls On Board: Two," KITPLANES®, December 2014] is not intended to provide primary training, but it can allow you to use the airplane for transition training under certain conditions. If it's insured, you will need to be qualified before you fly off the hours.

Transition training is not just about stick and rudder skills. Learning the mechanical details is also important—especially with homebuilts which may be unique.

What Kind of Training to Get?

The training needs to be "official," and it needs to be in an aircraft like what you want to insure. Like I said before, RG time is RG time. But, the underwriters will still make you get dual in the specific make and model, even if you have RG time. Time in make and model is the next vital key.

Time in type or make and model time are a couple of catchy terms. Most training requirements are make and model specific. This is a tremendous gray area. In theory, if I own a 1973 Cessna 150, and I want to fly a 1969 Cessna 150, I do not have make and model time. Look at the model designations in the registrations—they are different aircraft. A 1969 model is a "J" model and the 1973 is an "L" model. In theory, they are not exactly the same.

But don't worry. Typically the underwriters lump them all together. The problem comes when a different model has a different control layout or different performance specifications. Make and model time is supposed to mean that I can get in any of the same "make and model" and know where everything is and how to safely fly the aircraft.

Old Bonanzas were noted for having a certain layout in the panel and used push-pull "piano key" types of control handles; the later models changed the location and the shape of the controls. We actually had a case where the claims department tried to show that a gear-up happened because the instructor had experience in Bonanzas, but not in that specific year of aircraft. They felt the controls were in a different location, and therefore, the instructor did not have the same make and model time, and didn't know where the gear handle was located. Sometimes the claims department can be very particular.

Just because you are an airline or corporate pilot and have turbine time doesn't mean you're qualified to fly a turboprop tailwheel kitbuilt plane. Aircraft like the Compair 7 require training from experienced pilots that know how this particular family of aircraft handles and the safest way to fly them.

Who to Train With?

Training needs to be provided by a person who knows the particular aircraft. If your insurance underwriter asks for 10 hours of dual, they expect the instructor to be: (1) a CFI, and (2) someone who is familiar with your specific aircraft.

An example we had for this was an instructor who had time in a Piper Dakota, but did not have time in a Piper Cherokee 235. In my book they are about the same aircraft. The Dakota is the later version with the tapered wing and the quadrant for the throttle, mixture, and prop (instead of the push-pull, vernier-style controls). In this case, the underwriters actually had to specifically approve the CFI to give dual in the 235 because he did not have time in "make and model." The language of the policy could have denied a claim if the owner had gotten dual from the CFI based on Dakota time, not 235 time. Would that have stuck in court? I don't know, but the legal costs to find out would have been a lot higher than the cost of approval from the underwriter (a phone call and fax).

For those owners of high-performance or special custom-built aircraft, sometimes factory training is the only way to go. The underwriters figure that who better than the factory or factory-approved training program to teach you to fly that specific aircraft. Of course, the factory pilot needs to have a syllabus, must be a CFI, and needs to be approved by the underwriters.

The problem is many custom-built aircraft manufacturers don't have a training aircraft or pilot on staff. Then what do you do? Get a good friend that has a lot of hours in the same type of aircraft, and have them check you out and give you the dual. Will the underwriters accept that? Some underwriters will. But they have to approve it up front. Don't do that on your own or you could be at risk of no insurance coverage. If you are going to break the rules, why spend the money on insurance to begin with?

It never hurts to get type-specific transition training—no matter how many types you have flown. Here Joe Norris of Sonex Aircraft checks out Editor in Chief Paul Dye in one of their two-seaters before turning him loose in the Onex.

Stay Current

Don't quit flying just because you're building. If you just spent the last five years building your pride and joy, and haven't flown during that time, your pilot skills are probably a bit rusty. Imagine what the underwriter is thinking when a builder wants to get in the aircraft and make the first fright…err…flight. And it's worse if they haven't flown for the last two or three years.

Many times the builder finishes years of work and is so excited to fly the new plane that they call the local CFI to get a current flight review and figure that's enough to make them qualified. It's not. I hate to break the news, but not flying for years and getting a simple flight review at the local FBO doesn't prepare you to be a test pilot. It might cost more to stay current during the build, but it is worth it (and probably cheaper) in the long run.

Special Situations

Oh, one more thing to think about is the type of engine you are using in your aircraft. If you are installing an off-the-wall, one-of-a-kind engine, where will you get the training? The more specialized the design of the aircraft and the components (engine, landing gear, etc.), the more training the underwriters will probably require, and the less likely they are going to give you a quote. A low-time or no-time pilot will find it almost impossible to get coverage in a custom-built plane with a rotary or a small turbine. It doesn't matter what the reliability numbers are for the engine and aircraft—if there are very few of them produced and you are a pilot with no experience in that model, you will have a difficult time getting insurance coverage.

That leaves only one option: Fly the socks (or is that tail feathers) off of it the first year, get about 250 hours in that specific make and model, and then buy the insurance.

Scott "Sky" Smith is a private, single- and multi-engine pilot with over 30 years of aviation experience. He is a nationally recognized aviation writer, speaker and author whose titles include How to Buy a Skymaster and How to Buy a Single-Engine Airplane. He is also the owner of SkySmith, Inc., an aviation insurance agency.

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