Alan Levin, Bloomberg News
(Updates with board comment, kit craft statistics from third paragraph.)
May 22 (Bloomberg) -- Private planes assembled from kits have been involved in more crashes and deaths than other small aircraft because pilots are often ill-prepared to fly them, a U.S. safety study found.
Planes like those that Micron Technology Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steve Appleton and singer John Denver were piloting when they died were more than three times more likely to be in a fatal accident, according to a study released today by the National Transportation Safety Board. More than 10 percent of accidents in home-built planes last year occurred the first time a pilot flew them.
"This has been an issue for a while," Robert Sumwalt, a NTSB board member, said at a hearing in Washington today after describing Denver's crash almost 15 years ago. "It involves a lot of pilots. Hopefully we can drive the accident rate significantly down as a result of this study."
Home-built small planes are classified as experimental by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and have fewer regulatory restrictions than similar factory-built planes, according to the safety board.
Of about 224,000 U.S. general aviation aircraft, 33,000 were built from plans or kits, according to the NTSB. About 1,000 are made each year, Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, said in a phone interview.
The association, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, represents more than 160,000 pilots and other enthusiasts, according to its website.
Home-built models range from simple designs made mainly from wood to high-performance aircraft built with carbon fiber. They have been growing in popularity because they typically cost less than factory-built planes and appeal to hobbyists, Knapinski said.
The home-built Lancair IVP-TP plane that Micron Technology's Appleton was flying when he crashed and died Feb. 3 in Boise, Idaho, was equipped with a turbine engine and was pressurized to fly at high altitudes. This model can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Knapinski.
Appleton's plane crashed shortly after takeoff as he was attempting to return to the airport, according to the NTSB. Investigators haven't established a cause.
One of the best-known accidents involving home-built planes was one that killed Denver on Oct. 12, 1997, in Pacific Grove, California.
Denver had 2,750 hours of flight time and had been approved to fly many aircraft types, including Learjets, according to safety board records.
Denver owned the plane that crashed, a Long EZ home-built model designed by Scaled Composites LLC of Mohave, California, for about two weeks and flown it a handful of times, the NTSB found. The company, now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp., was founded by spacecraft designer Burt Rutan.
The accident occurred after fuel in one tank ran out and the engine stopped running as Denver attempted to switch to the other tank, the safety board ruled. Denver's inadequate training in the plane contributed to the accident, the agency said, as was a relocated fuel switch that was difficult to reach. Because the plane was a home-built model, there were no U.S. rules on moving the fuel switch, according to the NTSB.
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