Safety Publications/Articles

Professional CFI: New Horizons in Experimental Airplane Training

Cessna is back in the game, manufacturers' product liability problems have improved, and we can't help but look for the return of the "good old days" of airplane mass production. But manufactured airplanes aren't the only ones being built these days. In 1996 more than 900 amateur-built aircraft, often called "homebuilts," were certified by the FAA, becoming part of the more than 20,000 amateur-built aircraft currently flying in the United States.

Are you prepared if a prospective student asks for primary training in a brand-new SkyStar Kitfox? How about transition training in a Van's RV-6A? These airplanes may look similar to the Piper Cub or Grumman trainer that you're familiar with, but they are different. Different flight rules may apply to certain amateur-built aircraft, and their flight characteristics are unique. For example, some experimental airplanes are restricted to day VFR operations. Also, unusual aerodynamic configurations such as canards, pusher propellers, or big engines and little wings, make these airplanes fly and handle differently from certified production aircraft. Can you do it? Should you do it? Following are some of the most common questions about homebuilts and answers to those questions.

What is an experimental certified airplane?

Anyone has the right to build an airplane, either from plans or from a kit. Kits have become increasingly sophisticated and popular, providing relative ease of construction and a certain level of predictable outcome. Anyone who completes at least 51 percent of the airplane will be listed on the airworthiness certificate as the builder. The airworthiness certificate specifies the aircraft as experimental, which carries certain limitations spelled out in FAR 91.319.

Do the limits applied to an experimental airplane differ from those for my Cessna 152?

You bet they do! The experimental operating limitations, which are issued with the experimental certificate, define such things as flight test requirements, VFR limits, passenger limits, and maintenance requirements. For instance, homebuilt airplanes generally are restricted from flying over populated areas (except for takeoffs and landings) or on congested airways. Homebuilts can't be used in a commercial operation. (An instructor may be paid for services provided in an experimental airplane, but charges can't be levied for use of the airplane.) You or your student cannot rent a homebuilt for the purpose of training. Be aware of these special limits before you act as an instructor in the airplane.

What are flight test limits?

The operating limitations require a specific number of flight-test hours before a newly certified experimental airplane can be flown outside of a certain restricted area or be used to carry passengers.

The test restrictions are commonly imposed for the first 25 to 40 flight hours, but that may vary. During these test hours the airplane should be flown in compliance with FAA Advisory Circular AC-90-89, which describes the test program. This is definitely not the time for flight instruction.

What are the maintenance requirements for an experimental airplane?

An experimental airplane does not need to have a traditional annual inspection, but the operating limitations do require an annual condition inspection. The builder may perform this inspection if he or she holds an experimental repairman certificate issued under FAR 65.104. The original builder is the only person who can qualify for the experimental repairman certificate. Anyone with an airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate may also perform the annual condition inspection, but it may be difficult to find one who has experience with a specific design. Experimental airplanes do not need an annual sign-off by a mechanic with inspection authorization.

Now that we have touched on facts about the airplane, let's take a look at our own ability to fly and instruct in an experimental airplane.

As with any airplane you fly, you must know and understand the operating systems and flight characteristics. Looks can be deceiving. What if the airplane is powered by a two-cycle engine? Does the prop rotate left or right? If you don't know the answer, the standard right rudder on takeoff could lead to an unwelcome view of the hangars! The engine may be a Lycoming or Continental, but the fuel system and ignition could be quite different from what you are used to. Stepping into an experimental airplane as a flight instructor should not be a "talk about it this morning, fly it this afternoon" project. Let's ask and answer some questions about you as the flight instructor.

Where do I start?

Find out what the owner knows about the airplane. If the owner is also the builder, he or she can give you excellent insight into its design and systems. A non-builder may or may not know all the details. Review the operating limitations. If the limitations appear to be overly restrictive, the owner may be able to work with the FAA to have them revised.

What about liability?

Liability is an inescapable issue. Your insurance may not cover you in an experimental airplane. Check with your carrier before you agree to teach in one. If you aren't covered to teach in an experimental airplane, talk to your insurance provider about your needs. The more information you can provide about the airplane, the student, and the number of hours you are likely to spend flying, the easier it will be for your insurance carrier to tailor a plan for you.

Will an FAA designated examiner give a checkride in an experimental airplane?

Examiners are not required to give checkrides in experimental airplanes, but they may if they wish. The more conventional the airplane, the better your chances of getting an examiner to give a checkride. If you are working with a primary student, it's important to plan ahead.

Where can I go for help?

A number of groups can offer you assistance in getting specific answers to your questions. AOPA's aviation specialists can provide much insight to instructors. The National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) is another resource for answering instruction questions.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) is another good resource for getting information, particularly about experimental aircraft themselves. The group can send you specific information about the aircraft you are considering teaching in and put you in touch with volunteers who are experts on particular airplanes. EAA flight advisors and technical counselors can answer many of your questions about everything from the performance characteristics of a given experimental model to the types of piloting skills needed to fly a particular aircraft safely.

As with any new endeavor, the best thing you can do is be informed. If the opportunity to teach in an amateur-built airplane comes along, be sure to get all the facts before accepting the challenge. Consider whether you are willing to solo a student in a single-place airplane; it's legal, but it's up to you.

And remember that just because an airplane is amateur-built doesn't mean the pilot should receive amateur training. The builder or owner of the experimental aircraft expects and deserves professionalism from you. Be sure to lay all the facts on the table and discuss compensation for your extra work and insurance requirements. Then get ready for the fun and excitement of teaching in an experimental aircraft.

For more information about teaching in homebuilts contact AOPA at 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672); NAFI at 800/564-6322; or EAA at 920/426-4821.

By Earl C. Downs

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