June, 2007

The 51 per cent rule-how does it apply to purchased projects?

Several aircraft projects have changed hands recently, and I have been asked about the "51 percent rule." Let's go ahead and review this aspect of homebuilt aircraft, as I know there are others out there wondering about the specific requirements. As they say, "majority rules!" What a beautiful concept it is, useful for everything from deciding where to go on vacation, to electing Presidents, to...well...deciding whether or not an airplane is truly "Experimental." And how wonderfully useful it is, that this ancient and simple democratic principle is made to fit the world of homebuilt experimental aircraft construction. No ifs, ands or buts, if you make 51 per cent of the airplane it can be licensed in the Experimental category. Period. Not even a two-thirds or a three-fifths majority is needed, just document the fact that anything over half the amount of work was done by you for your own entertainment and education, and you've met the test. In this application we see a manifestation of the increasingly rare art of "hands-off" governance. (Sadly, in many areas of life the government is seen as more meddling.) We can thank our own EAA-type "founding fathers," including Paul Poberezny, Wes Schmid, and the late Steve Wittman, who helped the FAA understand that the 51 percent rule is good and is workable, therefore serving us homebuilders well for half a century now. But as with any other "simple" rule, it's the interpretation of it that counts, or the fear of how someone else such as a court or a panel of judges might interpret it in some cases. So with that in mind, let's examine some aspects of the 51 percent rule and hopefully enlighten ourselves a little bit. Several people working together can do 51 percent of the work. It does not have to be one lone individual.

"51 per cent of what?"

In its simplest form the so-called "51 per cent rule" for homebuilt aircraft seems very straight- forward. If you build at least 51 per cent of an aircraft, it qualifies for licensing in the "Experimental" category. Licensing an experimental aircraft exempts the design (and the builder of the aircraft) from having to meet FAA requirements for weight, design or speed that apply to certified type aircraft designs such as Piper, Beechcraft, Cessna, Mooney etc. For many of us, the most important part of the 51 percent rule is that any maintenance, modification, repairs, and annual inspections of that aircraft may be performed by the builder, who is granted mechanic status (a "repairman certificate") for that particular aircraft. It does not have to be performed by an FAA-licensed mechanic. The aircraft safety record for homebuilts appears to still be acceptable enough for the FAA to believe that "relaxed" governmental control and compliance will continue to adequately protect the public from undue danger caused by Experimentals. FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) Part 21 defines two categories of airworthiness certificates, "standard" and "special." Then they are broken down even further. One type of "special" airworthiness certificate is "experimental," which applies to subcategories such as these: "...aircraft engaged in...research and development...to conduct flight tests...for training...exhibition...air racing...market surveys...sales demonstrations...[or] amateur- built aircraft." (emphasis added) Obviously we are interested in the latter. The pertinent FAR, which is Part 21 Subpart 191(g), states that amateur-built aircraft are those which are "...fabricated and assembled by persons who undertook the project solely for their own education or recreation." That seems simple enough, right? Well, it is simple until you start to think about variations on this theme, like one airplane, several builders.
Using this Celerity as an example, do you think that completion from this point on would qualify as 51 per cent? It just depends on how much you add to the project.

"51 per cent by whom?"

Please note that FAR 21.191(g) says that it's "persons" (plural) and not "person." That clears up one thing--It doesn't have to be just one lone individual completing 51 per cent of the work. The 51 per cent of the fabrication and assembly can also be done by you and your best friend, or by a group of people (i.e.-a high school class), or it can be performed by you plus the person you purchased the project from. Just so long as more than half of the project was "amateur-built," that's what counts to qualify the project as an Experimental aircraft. However, please note that only one person can get the repairman certificate for that aircraft, not everybody who worked on it. Another FAA rule worth noting is that your possession of an experimental aircraft repairman certificate does not allow you to go and perform an annual inspection and certification of your friend's amateur built aircraft. In fact, this certification is only valid for the actual aircraft on which you gained your certification, not even the exact same airplane design that your friend has built.

How do you determine 51 percent?

This can be difficult to determine with a great deal of precision, especially if it is for a project that you have purchased from another builder. Of course, if the initial builder kept track of the hours spent in construction and you do the same, you would have hard evidence to support your 51 percent claim. But oftentimes we don't have that luxury, and many of us have a difficult time accurately estimating how much time it is going to take to build something anyway. (Count me in that category.) So when we look at somebody else's work, especially for something we haven't done before, it's harder for us to figure out if that thing sitting on the trailer is just barely 49 percent of a completed airplane.
If you were to do the complete engine, prop, cowling, interior and paint work, it would probably total more than 51 percent.
I have heard it said that if you put in the engine, panel, interior and paint, that's about 51 per cent of the work. This may be true, I honestly don't know. It certainly sounds reasonable, especially when you talk to somebody who has done this! I think that the real world interpretation made by the FAA would be if you have done enough of the work for them to feel comfortable that you have gained the necessary knowledge to do your own maintenance and inspections. If it appears that you don't have a clue how this airplane is built, you're standing on shaky ground. You cannot build 51 percent of an airplane and be oblivious as to what makes it tick, what to watch out for, etc.

Making your case

The best and most prudent course for you the builder (or in some cases, for you as the "completer" of an existing project) is to start keeping records of what you do and how much time you spend doing it. Begin logging your time and tasks right away, and take lots of photos to document what you have done. Nothing talks like hard evidence. Also keep track of your material and component purchases. Of course, as with so many things in life, the computer can be used for this purpose. Just be sure that you periodically download a hard copy and stash it somewhere in the unlikely case that your old PC goes belly-up! Some airplane builders go so far as to start a Web site about their airplane building project and document things as they go along, for all to see. Usually this isn't kept up to the same detail as a logbook, but it would serve as additional documentation. You can easily keep track of your tasks and hours on your computer, using Word, Excel, or some other common format for updating the builder's log. You might want to make entries each time you check your email for example. Of course, you can just as easily write it all down in a log book or spiral notebook. Some do it scrapbook style, pasting in progress photos as they go along. Regardless of how you keep track of your work, don't ever feel that you are piling up too much documentation. The worst thing is to cause an inspector to question your work or your intentions, simply because you didn't document everything thoroughly! So write down all that hard work so that the FAA inspector evaluating your project is "...looking AT it, not looking FOR it!" Never put an inspector in the position of having to make a decision on the merits of your argument without having proper documentation at hand. Celerity and Marathon builder construction videos to go digital

The old boy runs out of excuses...

For some of us Neanderthals out there, and I include myself in the category, change comes a little harder. Herewith is my confession. While a lot of you guys are jumping right up and becoming the very first kids on the block to try out the very latest whiz-bang items, I prefer to sit back and wait. Wait for what? Oh, wait for the prices to come down, for one thing. And wait for the bugs to get ironed out, for another. Then I also have old sayings on my side such as this jewel of a maxim, "Never buy the 'A' model of anything!" I didn't own a home computer until it seemed that most of my friends had one, and then I didn't start using the Internet for some time after that. When GPS came out, I decided to wait awhile. I am still waiting to use one for the very first time. Of course there is also the plain old preference factor at work here--with my degree in geography, I still love my old paper maps don'tcha know! I used a flight simulator while getting my instrument rating (in 1983) but have resisted putting flight sim on this newer laptop that's sitting in front of me. Heck, this computer might have come with Flight Sim already programmed into it, I wouldn't know! I remember that when I had flight sim loaded on my old PC I played around with it a little bit, but I am not really the video game type. And EFIS? What's that stuff all about? Actually I do know just a little tiny bit about electronic flight instrumentation systems, but that's about it. I did finally purchase one of those newfangled digital cameras last year and I have been able to make good use of it. It's one of those things I wish I had bought sooner! However, I don't have one of those cell phone thingies that will take pictures, much less a color cell phone display with color TV-like pictures! Need versus want I guess what it comes down to is that I have to have a real need for something before I feel compelled to buy it and try it. It is not enough that something "new" reportedly does a particular task extremely well, it just doesn't make any difference to me in a practical sense unless I actually need that degree of improvement. And of course, I have to be able to afford it. I got a call from an Englishman the other day asking about our airplane designs. While discussing the builder's videos, this gentleman mentioned that VHS videotapes are often hard to play. (Especially since the Europeans adopted a format that is different from VHS!) I guess there isn't a similar problem with DVD's. Also, the quality of the VHS videos suffers a bit when making copies of the tapes, while digital videos are theoretically as perfect as the original. Another advantage with DVD's is that they cost considerably less to send through the mail, and they also take up less shelf space for our builders. (Our builders who have a DVD at home, of course.) A final selling point is that you can now purchase a decent DVD recorder (or "burner") for less than a hundred dollars. So I guess I have run out of excuses and at this point I feel that I need to upgrade the construction videos that Larry and I have made, using what for me is this very latest technology. Fellow builder Don O'Rourke of Tucson volunteered to make digital master DVD's of the construction videos from the original hand-held camera videocassettes, after which I will be able to make copies for our builders. Of course, I'll need to do some computer updates also so I can not only make copies but also manipulate the material and make changes as needed. This might take a little time. If you want to get a DVD copy of any construction video, or a new DVD set, just give me some time to get everything set up and then I will be able to provide them to you. But first I want to do a little editing and so forth. I hope to make the new product a little more user-friendly, and possibly even a bit more attractive than the old VHS videos. Is this your big year? Are you REALLY ready? I know that several of you builders are getting tantalizingly close to taxiing out for that First Flight. As the big day draws near and as you do final preparation on your airplane, be sure that you too are personally prepared for this event.
If you're going to do your own test flying, be sure that you have taken advantage of EAA's Flight Advisor program to evaluate your skills and make sure that you are up to the task. Also, try to get some time in a high performance airplane--not a 150 or a Cherokee, but something more like Van's RV or similar to prepare you for the lighter control feel. Don't be like the local pilot a few years back. While taxiing out in his newly purchased experimental aircraft, he joked to the tower, "I'm going to learn how to fly this thing or die trying!" Guess what? He died trying. So be careful out there, you hear? Yours for safe skies! Ed.