Experimental amateur-built aircraft crash more often than those assembled in a factory. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that, when compared to factory-built aircraft used in similar flight operations, amateur-built aircraft crash three times as often. Our own National Transportation Safety Board studied the amateur-built accident rates and made similar findings.
One might expect that, because they are built by an amateur, an experimental aircraft’s wings would tend to fall off more often than those of a factory-built aircraft. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Most experimental aircraft are structurally sound. Rather, according to NTSB data, the biggest issue is engine failure, often because of fuel flow problems.
And that’s exactly what brought down an experimental Van’s RV-10 aircraft in Toledo, Oregon, in June 2014. The aircraft lost power on takeoff, killing the pilot and his 4 year-old passenger. The NTSB concluded the engine failed because it wasn’t getting fuel. Investigators found broken fragments of sealant in the aircraft’s fuel line where, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be.
There are no statistics on how often the companies who sell kits get sued, but it’s hardly ever. After all, who is responsible for the defect in the aircraft’s manufacture or design that caused the crash? The company who sold the kit? Or the guy who spent several years putting the kit together in his garage? While some builders follow the kit maker’s directions to the letter, many do not, taking it upon themselves to modify at least some portion of the aircraft. That's allowed by regulations and seems to be part of the fun of building the aircraft. For example, John Denver was killed years ago when the amateur-built aircraft he was piloting crashed off the California coast. The amateur who put the kit together thought he had a better way of doing it and installed the aircraft fuel valve in a place other than as recommended by the kit's seller. The NTSB ultimately determined that it was that modification that led to the crash.
But even if the victim’s lawyer proves it was the kit maker, and not the builder, who was responsible for the defect, few kit makers carry insurance. That means a verdict against the aircraft company may be impossible to collect.
Despite the hurdles, the family of the girl killed in the Toledo crash has filed suit against Van’s Aircraft Inc., blaming it for exploiting FAA “loopholes” that allow it to sell aircraft that have not been properly tested and are thus unproven and unsafe. The suit goes on to allege that
Not only are Van’s aircraft designs untested and unsafe, but its assembly instructions are also inadequate and unsafe.
The suit goes on to allege that the fuel flow transducer that Van's supplied with the kit was dangerous because it was not capable of dealing with a blockage, as would be required of on a fuel flow transducer mounted on a factory-built aircraft.
We can expect Van’s to argue that their experimental aircraft are just that – experimental. They are not intended to have all the safety features included with factory-built aircraft. That is why the word “experimental” is required by law to be prominently displayed inside each one.