Aviation safety issues and actions

Flight manual requirements for amateur-built experimental aircraft

Issue number: AO-2014-163-SI-01
Who it affects: Operators of amateur-built experimental aircraft
Issue owner: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Transport function: Aviation: General aviation
Background: Investigation Report AO-2014-163
Issue release date: 14 April 2016
Current issue status: Open – Safety action pending

Safety issue description

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority did not require builders of amateur‑built experimental aircraft to produce a flight manual, or equivalent, for their aircraft following flight testing. Without a flight manual the builder, other pilots and subsequent owners do not have reference to operational and performance data necessary to safely operate the aircraft.

Response to safety issue

In response to this safety issue, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) advised that:

CASA would like to note that an experimental aircraft must be placarded accordingly to ensure occupants are aware that they fly at their own risk, and that CASA does not set airworthiness standards for experimental aircraft (see Civil Aviation Regulation 1988 (CAR) subregulations 262AP(8) and (9)).

The experimental certificate regulations provide for this level of safety with as much flexibility as possible. The experimental certificate, including conditions specified on or attached to the certificate, is the primary means of maintaining these minimum standards. In the case of experimental amateur built aircraft, the necessary flight restrictions and information about the aircraft, such as weight and balance, are established as part of the flight test program and included on the experimental certificate, or other appropriate method such as placards or an Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM).

The regulations clearly provide that the experimental certificate system is only intended to establish minimum safety standards for other airspace users and people on the ground (see Civil Aviation Safety Regulation 1998 (CASR) subregulation 11.055(1C)). An AFM is not required under the regulations for experimental amateur built aircraft however CASA recommends an AFM be developed (see Advisory Circular (AC) 21.4, section 17).

CASA does not fully understand the rationale behind the ATSB recommendation about mandating, rather than recommending the production of AFM for these experimentally operated aircraft given the non-existence of an AFM for this aircraft had no effect on the incident (as acknowledged in the report on page 10).

CAR 138 states that if a flight manual has been issued then the pilot must comply with it. CASA acknowledges that mandating an AFM for experimental amateur built aircraft may improve safety for subsequent owners and other pilots than the original owner/builder/pilot. However, the experimental certificate system functions as intended by the current regulations (ie. to ensure the safety of other airspace users and people on the ground).

CASA currently recommends an AFM be produced for experimental amateur built aircraft, but changing this to a mandatory requirement would incur a significant cost to the owners/operators. CASA does not believe this incident in isolation provides sufficient justification this change to the legislation given the other safety protections that are already established.

It is noted that the Sports Aircraft Association of Australia (SAAA) Maintenance Procedures Course at Topic 4 (attached) on pages 14–16 recommends how to prepare a Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) for an amateur built using the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) standards specification 1, this is available from the GAMA website: www.gama.aero/industry-standards.

CASA does not believe there needs to be a regulatory requirement for a POH, it is an SAAA recommended practice to develop one during flight testing and this should form the basis of educational information that could be sent through to all registered owners of these types of aircraft.

ATSB comment/action in response

The ATSB acknowledges that CASA and the SAAA recommend that an AFM/POH is produced as part of the flight test program required for experimental amateur built aircraft. However, the ATSB remains of the view that, while the absence of a flight manual, or equivalent, did not influence this accident, such a document should be mandatory for the following reasons:

  • Without a flight manual the builder, other pilots and especially subsequent owners do not have sufficient reference to operational and performance data necessary to safely operate the aircraft.
  • Accidents involving amateur built aircraft occur at a significantly higher rate than comparable factory built aircraft. A requirement to document important operational information would provide a valuable safety enhancement at minimal cost.

Safety recommendation

Action number: AO-2014-163-SR-008
Action organisation: Civil Aviation Safety Authority records
Date: 14 April 2016
Action status: Released

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau recommends that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority takes safety action to address the lack of a requirement for builders of amateur‑built experimental aircraft to produce a flight manual, or equivalent, for their aircraft following flight testing.

Additional correspondence

Response date: 11 May 2016
Response from: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Action status: Released
Response text:

CASA response to Safety Recommendation SR-008

Safety Recommendation AO-2014-163-SR-008 is for CASA to address the safety issue and take action to address the lack of regulatory requirements for builders of amateur built experimental aircraft to produce a flight manual, or equivalent, for their aircraft following flight testing.

On this occasion CASA does not accept the ATSB recommendation. CASA currently recommends a flight manual be produced for experimental amateur built aircraft, noting they operate to a different standard to other categories of aircraft. In the case of experimental  amateur built aircraft, the necessary flight restrictions and information about the aircraft, such as weight and balance, are established as part of the flight test programme and are included on the experimental certificate, or other appropriate method such as placards or a flight manual. Therefore, CASA considers that subsequent owners and pilots other than the original owner/builder/pilot should still be able to access necessary information through these sources. CASA does not believe this incident in isolation provides sufficient justification for CASA to mandate the documentation of the relevant information referred to in the recommendation, given the other safety protections that are already established.

Response date: 28 July 2016
Response from: CASA
Action status: Monitor
Response text:

CASA clarification to their response to Safety Recommendation SR-008

Following a query from the ATSB, CASA provided the following clarification:

...The authority to grant an experimental certificate subject to a condition is specified in paragraph 11.056(1 )(ac) of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR), which provides that CASA must be satisfied that such a condition is necessary 'in the interests of the safety of other airspace users or persons on the ground or water'

Subregulation 262AP(3) of the Civil Aviation Regulation 1988 restricts the operation of an experimental aircraft to an assigned area and limits the carriage of persons other than essential crew members until it has been demonstrated that the aircraft:
(a) is controllable throughout its normal range of speeds and throughout all manoeuvres to be executed; and
(b) has no hazardous operating characteristics or design features.

To be eligible for an experimental certificate of airworthiness, an applicant is required to provide, amongst other things: upon inspection of the aircraft, any information reasonably needed by CASA or the authorised person or relevant approved design organisation to enable it to impose any conditions, including operational limitations, necessary in the interests of the safety of other airspace users and persons on the ground or water. [CASR 21.193( c)]

On this basis, an aircraft manufacturer or designer may require operating information to be displayed on a placard or in some other manner (e.g., in a flight manual). However, there is no regulatory requirement or explicit authority in the regulations for these performance figures or critical speeds for an amateur built aircraft issued with a Special Certificate of Airworthiness under CASR 21.191 (g) to be similarly displayed.

After review, it is more appropriate that CASA's statement be modified to read: 'In the case of experimental amateur built aircraft, the necessary flight restrictions and information about the aircraft, such as weight and balance, are established as part of the flight test programme.

Operational Limitations under CASR 11.056 may be included in the annex to the experimental certificate.'

ATSB comment:

ATSB letter to CASA

The ATSB considers that the combined CASA responses to safety recommendation AO-2014-163-SR-008 do not adequately address the safety issue. The ATSB considers that CASA's responses do not provide adequate assurance that the builder, other pilots, and in particular subsequent owners, of amateur-built aircraft will have valid, reliable and enduring reference to operational and performance data sufficient to safely operate their aircraft.

Following discussion between senior staff at the ATSB/CASA biannual meeting of 16 December, a consensus was reached that the ATSB write to CASA again suggesting that CASA might reconsider its response to safety issue AO-2014-163-Sl-01 in the context of the United States (US) National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) safety study AAR-1 2-01 on amateur-built aircraft.

This study resulted in the NTSB releasing two safety recommendations to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The recommendations (A-12-029 and A-12-032) related to mandating flight manuals for US amateur-built aircraft. These recommendations highlight similar safety concerns identified in ATSB safety issue AO-2014-163-Sl-01.

In response to the NTSB safety recommendations, the FAA undertook to set up a working group to address the issue. In September 2016, the Administration updated their response to the recommendations indicating that the FAA did not have the resources to conduct rule changes. The FAA indicated that instead it would update the relevant Advisory Circular to provide for a requirements-based Phase 1 flight test that would result in flight test data being documented.

On 17 October 2016 the NTSB accepted that the FAA's update of the relevant Advisory Circular had the potential to ensure that US amateur-built aircraft flight test data would be documented. As a result, the NTSB set the status of safety recommendations A-12-029 and A-12-032 to 'Open-acceptable alternate response' pending a review of the FAA's actions.

The ATSB remains of the view that ensuring operators of amateur-built aircraft in Australia have access to relevant operational and performance data would provide a significant safety benefit at what would appear to be minimal cost. In this context, the ATSB considers that CASA may wish to consider action similar to that of the FAA in response to the NTSB safety recommendations for application in Australia.