Major revisions to the so-called 51% Rule could have a dramatic-and negative-impact on homebuilding. The FAA has released the final report from the Amateur-Built Aircraft Aviation Rulemaking Committee containing plans to update approval guidance for Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft. Published on February 15, the final report said that a public comment period was to come in the “April-May timeframe.” Final rulemaking, expected to be a rework of two primary Advisory Circulars-AC20-27 and AC20-139-that govern approval of amateur-built aircraft, is expected by October.
According to the report, “many amateur-builders use too much commercially provided assistance.” I mildly disagree with the term “many” and vociferously so with the modifier “most” used elsewhere in the report to describe the situation. Lets call it like it is: The vast majority of Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft in this country are constructed by individuals for the right reasons, according to the rules. They’re innocent bystanders.
So whats the problem? Commercial programs exist that have earned the FAAs description of “blatant” in circumventing builder involvement. These programs result in an airplane built with very little personal effort. Nothing new. The so-called “hired guns” have been around for decades, but they generally worked quietly, under the radar. The builder arrived from time to time bearing money. As I read it, those programs that purport to have the builder do the “major portion” of the work on large, complex airplanes are what caught the Feds attention.
Programs like Glasair Aviations Two Weeks to Taxi-of which I am a charter member-insist that builders be there every single day the airplane is under construction, and work their backsides off just keeping on schedule. Compare this-or even a builder-assist program where the builder really does set the pace-with programs where the builder is just one part of a large assembly line process. Sound farfetched? This was the scenario described as the tipping point.
To stop the abuse, the FAA is considering several options. First, actively enforce the existing rules and, according to the report, “In egregious cases where there is a clear, deliberate falsification of the eligibility statement, the FAA should make referrals to the Department of Justice for prosecution.” Excellent idea, make it so. Second, amend the forms to ensure that builders specify which parts of the airplane have been constructed by the factory, by the builder and by outside contractors. It also wants those outside contractors identified. Within this revision is the understanding that the contributions of the factory and the commercial assistance entities cannot constitute the “major portion” of the work involved building the airplane.
But that determination is where, I think, trouble lurks. While the committee members and the FAA agreed on virtually all matters before them, they could not agree on a method of calculating who does the major portion. The committee members pushed to retain the existing system, which the FAA rejected.
Among the potential casualties are quickbuild kits as we know them. Its possible that the FAA will, in the course of redefining who can do what, require builders to perform operations that are currently part of most modern quickbuild kits. To backtrack on the state of the art in quickbuild kits is terribly wrongheaded. These are more than mere conveniences. Many quickbuild kits include factory construction of critical structure. Can you argue that an “amateur-built” mainspar is better-stronger, safer, more consistent-than one done by professionals? How about factory-sealed fuel tanks?
The evolution of quickbuild components has benefitted builders, pilots, passengers and the families of those involved. Todays kits are better and more fault tolerant than ever. Im convinced they’re also safer. This is progress. Punishing hardworking, legitimate amateur builders for the excesses of the few is absolutely not. J