The New Kitbuilt Rules: Endangering the Freedom of the Many for the Excesses of the Few
As we in the aviation journalism field prepare to slouch aboard crowded, pay-extra-for-the-checked-bags airliners (hoping against hope that we'll actually get there the day we intend to) aimed generally toward Oshkosh, we do so knowing that fireworks could be in our future-and I don't mean the kind associated with the aerial exhibitions.
Just two weeks before the big show, the FAA, months late, finally dropped into our world drafts of revised and combined Advisory Circulars that dramatically change the requirements for licensing Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft and complicate the situation almost beyond belief. From an initiative that began to weed out the flagrant violators in the homebuilt world-the shops and companies that will build you a complete airplane with little to no involvement of the "builder"-the FAA has expanded the "guidance" to such an extent that core builders, the men and women toiling away for years in their garages, will be burdened by nonsense requirements, flustered by inconsistent (contradictory, even) language and helped not at all to make their airplanes safer.
A bit of background. An advisory panel was formed last year to look into the "problems" if "excessive commercial assistance," and the initial findings were published in February,. A draft of revised rulemaking was supposed to appear this spring. In fact, the draft of the new rules appeared in the middle of July, with a substantially shorter comment period than the industry was given to understand. We have 30 days, until August 15, to comment; those on the advisory panel believed it would be 60 or even 90 days. As this is written, the EAA has petitioned for an extension to the comment period. It's my view that the short comment period is a tactic to reduce the blowback of the new rules, which you have to assume the FAA knew would be wildly unpopular. In the proposed changes, which will cause current guidance ACs to be superseded, simple and effective rules that have worked for decades have been supplanted by a new, complicated set of guidelines that, at their most onerous, specifically require a certain amount of "fabrication" from builders. In past guidance, the terms assembly and fabrication were used interchangeably.
When applied honestly-that is, when the builders didn't perjure themselves on the documents that go with every Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft that proclaim the builder to, in fact, be the builder-the combination of these terms have worked extremely well.
Let's understand fabrication. In the past, builders created airplanes from largely raw parts-cutting and welding steel tube, for example, or working with foam cores over which fiberglass cloth and wet resin were applied. But the industry has inextricably moved on to where builders are working with far more complete basic, structural components. Fiberglass (and Kevlar and carbon fiber) shells are premolded using high-technology tooling that offers much better form control and consistency.
Even the common aluminum kits come with a high degree of fabrication, particularly of critical structural items; these pieces fit together like a high-quality puzzle, and don't often need hours with a hacksaw or file to make fit. Very few of the popular kits I know of that use steel tubing require any welding by the builder at all. Maybe if you're trying out for a welding job this experience would be useful, but for the vast majority of the modern builders, who are scared stiff of welding, requiring them to spark up a torch is a bad thing.
Into this, the FAA has decided that it wants a certain amount of "fabrication," namely 20percent. In the draft documents, the 51percent of the kit that is the minimum to be left to the builder is broken down by 20percent assembly, 20percent fabrication, and 11percent that can be either. Never before has the FAA required a specific amount of fabrication; the previous rules said simply that the builder had to commit the majority of the assembly and fabrication, though every modern kit I can think of includes some degree of pure fabrication.
And then there's the issue of just what fabrication is. In the guidance, the FAA says this means working from "raw" materials. But how raw is raw? If you have a composite airplane, do you have to go back to raw glass and foam? Or can you get credit for working with seaming materials-say, installing a strip of glass that joins two other prefabricated pieces? This is one area where the working group was at odds with the FAA, and it seems that the group's recommendations have been ignored.
I spoke at length with Dick VanGrunsven about the proposals, and he said that the FAA had come through Van's Aircraft and run a test of the new checklist on the popular RV-7 quickbuild kit. It passed the 20percent fabrication level, but not by a lot. I asked if the RV-10, which is a more advanced kit, would pass and Dick said he didn't know; it hadn't been run through the same checklist. And as for the RV-12, it's difficult to say, but the high level of prefabrication seen on that kit would, near as I can tell, put it right on the edge.
On this issue of defining fabrication, the EAA has decided that it will fight the FAA on at least the requirement for a certain percentage. According to the EAA's Earl Lawrence, "EAA will be opposing the 20 percent fabrication requirement in favor of a simple majority portion of the tasks. EAA believes that there is just too much debate and opinion as to what is fabrication and what is assembly, what is the definition of the two etc. for builders to wade through all of this." The EAA is going to push the idea that "a task is a task is a task," which is how the previous set of rules were laid out. If a builder did a "task," say, build a rib, he simultaneously received credit for fabrication and assembly, even if the vast majority of the true effort was assembly.
In order to define who did what, the FAA has created Figure 9-3: Amateur-Built Fabrication and Assembly Checklist, which consists of 187 tasks and breaks them down. A column is used to define what has been done by the manufacturer, what was done by commercial assistance, what was assembled by the builder and what was fabricated by the builder. In a stark turnaround from previous indication, where the FAA opposed the idea of multiple credit among various entities for a specific task, the new checklist allows the builder to define, by 10percent increments, who did what. For example, Task 1 is "fabricate longitudinal members."
The maximum value for any line is 1, so the manufacturer might be listed as 0.5 and the builder 0.5, if he fabricated half of the longitudinal members. But what is half? How do you define it? By steps in the process? Time? Effort? It takes an automated stamping machine about a second to pound out a wingrib, but it could take a builder days to complete the same task by hand. (And do I have to point out that the professionally manufactured rib, with its locating holes, is almost certainly a better, more consistent part than one hammered on a workbench next to the washer and dryer by an amateur builder?) More troubling is that some major components are now on that list. For example, one line says "Fabricate engine propeller." Assuming the builder did not create his own propeller, that line scores a 1.0 for the Manufacturer/Kit/Part/Component line, which takes away a point from his own participation. In the past, purchasing such critical items as the propeller didn't count for or against the builder, or even factor into the computations determining major portion. Now the prop is joined by such things as the engine mount and exhaust system, which, if the builder does not fabricate (presumably from "raw materials") counts against his efforts. Does the FAA really want builders welding their own exhaust systems?
This Fabrication and Assembly Checklist continues down to a tally chart at the end, where the points are supposed to add up and create percentages of the effort. Given that the manufacturer can have only 49percent, maximum involvement in the basic structure of the airplane, the total remaining assembly and fabrication columns must add up to 51percent. And the fabrication column alone must be 20percent or more. If it's not, the FAA is supposed to reject the application.
Commercial assistance is next on the list. Back to that form. The column next to Manufacturer is Commercial Assistance. Any commercial assistance is deducted from the manufacturer's score; as it's written, the builder gets NO credit for any commercial assistance, even if he is intimately involved during that time. Worse than that, the ability for builders to get credit for educational assistance has been removed.
And while the new rules continue to leave overall construction of the engine, avionics, interior (and painting) outside the realm of the checklist, a few items have been snuck in. For example, the builder has to "fabricate instrument panel." By placing this item on the task list, it removes it from the free category and requires the builder to specify how much was done by the kit maker, how much by himself, and how much by commercial assistance. If, for example, the kit he's working from has a 49percent completion rate, and the builder honestly admits that his panel was professionally built, that line becomes a 1.0 under Commercial Assistance, and the airplane is no longer eligible.
Potentially the worst aspect of these new rules is the strain it puts on the DARs, or designated airworthiness representatives, who are the foot soldiers for the FAA in the Experimental world. These independent inspectors, who regularly (and rightly) charge a fee to "sign off" on Experimentals, are going to be put to a massive amount of work and responsibility under the new rules. In many places, the new draft documents refer to the FAA as making a determination, but you can read that as DAR. In many parts of the country, FAA inspectors outright refuse to come and inspect Experimental/Amateur- Built aircraft, citing workload.
What happens in the next few weeks-and just how the FAA responds to what should be a torrent of negative feedback from the builder community, which will be incredibly hard done by these changes if they go through as written-will be interesting to watch. The EAA's responses have been measured, careful and much calmer than I could manage, but that's why I'm not in government affairs. Builders need to speak up and be counted, we need to be outraged by the confusing, contradictory and utterly unnecessary new requirements that, as I said at the outset, do absolutely nothing to improve safety or help builders complete better aircraft. It's long been supposed that the FAA is out of the business of encouraging safety and is now entrenched in pure bureaucracy.
These draft Advisory Circulars prove it.