Your Test Pilot

by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the March 1994 issue of the Falco Builders Letter.

All homebuilders of aircraft have the same fantasy. After years of working in your shop on your beloved creation, lavishing care and taking the craft of building an airplane to a new high, it is finally time to fly the plane. You take the airplane to the airport, check it out carefully, and then launch it into the air. It will fly as perfectly as it looks. The handling will be perfection, even exhilarating. The speeds will be even better than promised, and as the sun goes down, you will turn, dive, roll and loop in an orgasm of aerobatic poetry. It will all be perfect.

It's also nonsense. And unlike fantasies about winning the Indy 500, climbing Mount Everest, winning the Presidency, or scoring with Kim Basinger, this is one fantasy that could kill you because you might actually attempt it. Homebuilders seem driven to do their own first flights, as if their manhood were at stake. Some see it in terms of a christening or wedding night. They built the airplane, and of course they are going to fly it!

But let's take a look at this decision in a coldly rational way by listing the major points involved.

1. The aircraft has been built by an amateur who has never built an airplane before. Let's face it, putting aside all the personal pride you may have in your work, you've never actually built an airplane before. The machine is most certainly not something that has come out of a series of accurate, proven production jigs and fixtures.

2. Most homebuilders don't do a lot of flying while they are building the airplane, in fact, many stop completely. Very few builders, at the time of the first flight, are current to the point that normal flying is instinctive, much less current enough to deal with serious problems on a first flight of a new, unproven airplane.

3. The aircraft, even if properly built, will have flight characteristics which will surprise you if you are not completely checked out in that type. All homebuilts aircraft have some exceptional flight characteristics. Many of the best ones simply have responsive controls, but others have high landing speeds or require unusual landing techniques.

We all know that the Falco is a great classic airplane with legendary handling, but it is also not an airplane that a Cherokee/172/Mooney pilot should just get in and go fly, much less flight-test. It takes quite a bit of getting-used-to before you can comfortably land the plane.

Frank Strickler

The Glasair III is a very high-performance machine that requires an unusual landing technique. Frank Strickler once told me, "I have now test-flown three Glasair III's on the first flight, and I'm never going to get my hieney in one of those machines again." This is a former Air Force instructor who flies SF.260s and numerous warbirds in his time off from his regular job of flying airliners. If this jet-jockey and P-51 pilot is uncomfortable with a popular kitplane, how is the average homebuilder with very few current hours going to fare in the machine?

Or take the Kitfox. Here is a slow-moving, conservative design that everyone likes and rightly so. The engine is on the front, the tail is on the right end, and it lands and takes off in no space at all. But the Kitfox has distinctly different handling characteristics, so much so that one experienced Kitfox pilot has written a short book about flying the airplane. When you flare the Kitfox, it is so light that it lacks the inertia to keep flying, so it's quite easy to flare and drop it in hard. Fully 25% of the Kitfoxes in England have been totalled -- thankfully without any fatalities due to the slow flying speed of the plane.

Don't get me wrong, I really like the Kitfox and in particular I think that Phil Reed, who owns the company, is the best new face to hit sport aviation since Frank Christensen brought out the Eagle. But anyone who says, "Aw hell, it's just a Kitfox. I'll fly it for you!" is being grossly irresponsible. It's an airplane that can crash like any other. Before you fly one-and especially on its first flight-you need to be checked out in a Kitfox just as you would a Falco, SX-300, Glasair III or anything else.

4. By far, the largest number of accidents in homebuilt aircraft occur on the first flight of the pilot in that aircraft. In 1992, 14% of homebuilt accidents occurred on the pilot's first flight in the aircraft, and 5% on the second flight. In all, 24% of the accidents occurred during the takeoff or landing phases due to inadvertent stalls, rolls or veering off the runway, thus 40 to 50% of the accidents seem to indicate a lack of familiarity with the flight characteristics of the aircraft.

This pattern of accidents in homebuilt aircraft has been confirmed by insurance companies (see "How to Kill Yourself in a Homebuilt Aircraft", Falco Builders Letter, March 1992), who now insist on pilots being checked out in many types before they will sell insurance.

These statistics are for the pilot's experience in a given aircraft, and they do not isolate the first flight of the aircraft. However, there is nothing to suggest that a test pilot with no previous experience in the type would be less prone to have an accident than the general statistics indicate.

5. Flight testing is a dangerous activity. We all instinctively know this, but we need to remind ourselves that the streets of Edwards Air Force Base are named after dead test pilots. Over the years, a lot of pilots have died flight-testing new aircraft.

In the early days of aviation, the military would simply let their most skillful pilots have-a-go at a new aircraft, but it didn't take long to notice that a lot of the pilots ended up dead. Since those days, they've learned and have developed a methodology for flight testing to minimize the risk.

If you put all of these factors together, they bring you to a very sobering conclusion that test-flying a homebuilt airplane is potentially a very dangerous activity, and any rationale that says otherwise is just wishful thinking. If stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the decision of a builder to do his own first flight really comes down to emotion and ego, not intelligence.

If nothing goes wrong on the first flight, then almost anyone can do it, but how quickly would you react if the engine quit on takeoff? On a first flight, you have to assume that the worst will happen. The airplane will be badly out of rig, the cockpit will fill with smoke from an electrical fire and the engine will quit. You need a pilot at the controls who can calmly put the airplane back on the runway. In short, you need the best pilot you can get your hands on, and if that pilot isn't you, then you are letting your ego and emotion do your thinking, not your brain.