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.Victoria Vabre photo

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.  

  • John

    Another evidence of our out of control lawsuit industry. By the standard of this lawsuit, NO industry could long survive. Why? Because even with no fault by the mfgr., (with the NTSB finding of user caused fuel line blockage) the suit would fatally wound this mfgr. With ruinous damage awards. And NO industry has 0 occurrences of SOME problem, including those entirely due to the user. Properly adhjucated, this would be immediately dismissed as having no merit. But of course, our legal system welcomes any and ever expanding grounds for suits. Trial lawyers and their supporters in congress see to it no effective tort reform happens.

  • Robert Clevenger

    As with all pilots, I feel for anyone who loses their life pursuing the dream of flight, especially when the life is so young. Having said that, I believe there are those in todays society whose beliefs are a little out of balance, as with the party who brought this lawsuit. Suing Vans Aircraft for an issue that was caused by the builder of the aircraft is like suing Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, or any other car builder for a crash that was caused by an owner who chose to modify his/her vehicle or to operate it at unsafe or un-designed speeds. Wake up America, not everything is someone else’s fault.

  • John Mueller

    Can anyone recommend a good patent attorney for a vtol aircraft I am working on?
    Thank You,
    John Mueller.

  • Marv Miniely

    Would it be possible for a group of Van’s RV owners to sue the person sueing Van’s for making their airplanes unsafe by threatening the existence of Van’s Aircraft?

  • Tim Cramb

    ctions like these would’ve kept the Wright Brothers on the Ground…In Crashes Passenger Insurance should eliminate Lawsuit Actions…”Unless” some Blatant Undeniable Negligence. NTSB found this builder using RTV in Fuel Systems. Come-on whether you build Cars boats or Aircraft any Dummy Knows RTV and Fuel Systems are a Bad mix. Poor Judgement by both parties A/C Owner and Parent…These are Experimental Aircraft use at your Own RISK….Iam truly Sorry for their Loss, losing a Beautiful little 4yr old Girl is incomprehensible…Losing an A/C Manufacturer over this is the same….