Flying with Chip


What you should know about flying in a small airplane.

My airplane, N207LT, is certificated as an Experimental - Amateur Built. This is a different category of airplane than the Cessnas and Pipers that you might be more familiar with. Those are Standard Type Aircraft. Standard Type certificated aircraft have a relatively strict list of parts and procedures that must be used to build and repair the airplane. One of the downsides of this is that certificated aircraft are very restricted in what kind of avionics they can use. The instrument panel in N207LT is vastly superior to most Standard Type aircraft.

While experimental airplanes are not as tightly controlled as Standard Type aircraft, that doesn't mean that they can't be as safe.

N207LT was built from a kit supplied by Van's Aircraft. There are over 8000 completed and flying Van's airplanes, a number that compares with how many Standard Type airplanes are out there. The kit came with a complete set of well proven parts and good assembly instructions. Most of the construction steps are not too difficult and don't require special skills. There are a number of training resources available for aircraft builders, and Van's kit builders enjoy the industry's best online community in the form of Van's Airforce. I did the best job I could building this airplane, and I have received many complements on the workmanship.

A common question is "Does your airplane have to be inspected?" Prior to flight, the FAA only requires a final inspection before granting an airworthiness certificate, but I also had periodic inspections by a number of experienced airplane builders.

Another item required by the FAA is that I have to carefully inspect the airplane once a year to make sure it is in good operating condition. I take this seriously and spend about a month taking off all the inspection panels, inspecting the airframe parts, checking all the nuts and bolts, plumbing and wiring, and verifying that the engine is in good operating order.

As part of the certification process, I have to abide by a set of Operating Limitations. This is a letter that was provided by the FAA designated examiner when my airplane was officially inspected. The operating limitations say things like no commercial operations, no aerobatics (I will not be doing loops and rolls!), and I have to display the following statement:

- PASSENGER WARNING-
THIS AIRCRAFT IS AMATEUR-BUILT AND
DOES NOT COMPLY WITH FEDERAL SAFETY
REGULATIONS FOR STANDARD AIRCRAFT

This placard might seem scary at first. But I can tell you that I did my best to follow good construction practices. You often don't have look too hard on factory built aircraft to find examples of construction practices that are not as good as what I did. I don't want to represent my work as flawless, but it's a very solid airplane - it's not going to come apart.

One thing to keep in mind about flying in a light plane is that insurance companies don't like them very much. They frequently have exceptions in their coverage with regards to flying in a light plane. In other words, you should carefully look at your insurance policies. You might not be covered when in a small plane. You'll have to decide if this is a reason to not fly with me or anyone else.

That brings up the topic of safety, and the number one reason that people don't want to fly - they don't like small planes, or they're afraid of them.

I usually try to take people up early on nice days. This avoids the worst of the bumpiness and makes your first small plane ride much more enjoyable. I won't be doing any abrupt manuevering or anything else intended to impress or scare you. I might let you fly a little bit, if you want to.

Relative Safety

So let's talk about safety. People, especially Americans, have a highly distorted risk scale. They think nothing of talking on their cell phone in rush hour traffic, but a small plane is viewed as a death trap. The media do their share to perpetuate this, for the most part focusing on the bad news. Any crash is sure to make the headlines, but millions of safe takeoffs and landings go entirely unnoticed. Flying in a small plane has about the same level of risk as riding a motorcycle. But if you look at motorcycle accidents, the vast majority are caused by the rider. Yes, motorcycles are harder to see, and some accidents are not the direct fault of the rider. The experienced rider knows this and rides VERY defensively, avoiding situations where mistakes by other drivers can be lethal. Motorcycles are not inherently dangerous when handled properly, and if all rider caused accidents were eliminated, then motorcycles wouldn't have such a bad rap.

Unfortunately, similar logic comes in to play with airplanes. Most accidents are caused by the pilot. The leading causes of airplane accidents are flying into the clouds without the proper training, hitting things (like the ground) when manuevering at low altitude, and running out of gas. These are all preventable. Factor out these causes and light aircraft would not be seen as inherently dangerous. In other words, light airplanes aren't dangerous, poor judgement is dangerous.

My pledge is to learn from other's mistakes so that I can hopefully avoid them. I'm constantly reading and learning about flying and flying safety. I attend local safety seminars. I subscribe to Aviation Safety! I'm not immune from mistakes, but I try really hard.

Here's another way to look at safety. In the US, about 250 people die each year in light plane accidents (most of which are preventable). About 40,000 a year die in motor vehicle accidents. If you are between 8 and 34, you are most likely to die from a car crash. Does this keep you out of your car?

Checklist

Here's the Passenger Briefing section of my preflight checklist: