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Experimental amateur-built aircraft involved in 'disproportionate' rate of accidents, NTSB finds

Pilot Frank Fierro, right, removes his single-engine Ultralight

Pilot Frank Fierro, right, removes his single-engine Ultralight Challenger plane off Sunrise Highway in Center Moriches on July 18, 2014. Credit: By James Carbone

Experimental amateur-built aircraft -- a class of planes that includes the single-engine Fargnoli Vincent Challenger that was twice forced to land on Sunrise Highway last summer -- are more likely to be involved in accidents compared to non-amateur-built aircraft, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

When it comes to deadly crashes, the rate per 1,000 aircraft is 2 ½ to 3 times higher.

"E-ABs [experimental amateur built] have experienced a disproportionate number of accidents relative both to their proportion of the general aviation fleet, and their share of general aviation flight activity," according to the NTSB report.

Experimental amateur-built aircraft represent nearly 10 percent of the general aviation fleet in the United States but accounted for about 15 percent of the total accidents in 2011, said the NTSB, which conducted a safety study and issued a report in 2012. When it comes to deadly crashes, they accounted for 21 percent of the accidents.

"Accident analyses indicate that power plant failures and loss of control in flight are the most common accident occurrences by a large margin, and that accident occurrences are similar for both new and used aircraft," the study said.

There have been 1,277 accidents involving home-built aircraft this year in the United States, six of them in New York, according to the NTSB database. Half of accidents in New York were fatal, including the crash that killed Zubair S. Khan, 41, of Manhattan, a vice president of derivatives trading technology at Barclays Capital.

Khan's fixed-wing Raven plunged into Long Island Sound on July 6 at 7:05 p.m., about 10 minutes after the pilot left Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Shirley, according to the NTSB accident report.

The figure did not include the two times in July when Frank Fierro, 75, of Lake Ronkonkoma, was forced to put down his yellow Fargnoli Vincent Challenger on Sunrise Highway in East Moriches after experiencing engine trouble shortly after takeoff.


'Experimental' defined

An experimental amateur-built aircraft is one in which the majority of the plane has been fabricated and assembled by an individual or a group who are doing it for their own education or recreation. The planes are built by aviation enthusiasts, often at home, from original designs or from kits. They include airplanes and light-sport aircraft such as fixed-wing, gyroplane, rotorcraft, weight-shift-control and powered parachute. A pilot's license is required to operate amateur-built aircraft, which are subject to annual inspections.

Nationwide, there are about 33,000 such planes in service, said Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association, which has more than 170,000 members worldwide, 3,756 in New York.

A large percentage of the accidents happened during the early stages of operating these aircraft, when pilots were learning how to maneuver unfamiliar planes, the study found. Accidents were also common shortly after an owner bought a used aircraft.

Knapinski said his group has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to provide training to aviators, many of whom are experienced pilots, but may have little or no skill flying a particular type of aircraft.

That's what happened to Fierro, who said he bought the yellow Fargnoli Vincent Challenger from someone else and was attempting to fly the plane when it experienced engine failure both times.

On July 10, Fierro, who said he has been flying since 1956, was forced to put the plane on the median of Sunrise Highway as alarmed motorists called police. Eight days later, Fierro took the plane out for another spin when, he believed, a blown fuse caused the engine trouble. This time Fierro landed the bright yellow aircraft on the busy highway. After the midair crises, Fierro said he donated the single-engine plane to an out-of-state group that may use it for parts.

Khan, too, was a longtime pilot who had recently built his own plane and had been taking it on flight tests, according to his friends.

Three weeks before the fatal crash, a YouTube video posted under an account bearing Khan's name showed he had trouble with the nose gear during landing. The video showed the Mastic Fire Department met the plane on the runway when it landed.


No license required

Operators of ultralights -- such as Erwin S. Rodger, 71, who was forced to land his Mosquito helicopter on a sod farm in Aquebogue last month -- don't need a pilot's license or an inspection to fly them. The FAA doesn't consider an ultralight an aircraft, but a vehicle.

Rodger was practicing a drill in which he tried to land the helicopter without power; when he tried to turn the power back on, however, the engine wouldn't start, according to a copy of the police report. It was the second time in three years that Rodger, who police said built the ultralight, was forced to make an emergency landing.

"The assumption is made that a person who elects to operate an uncertificated vehicle alone is aware of the risks involved," according to the FAA. Since the FAA does not investigate incidents involving ultralights, their safety records were not part of the study.

The FAA began regulating ultralights in the 1980s, putting limits on the aircraft's weight, speed and flying conditions -- restrictions that remain in effect today. Under FAA guidelines, an ultralight can carry one person and no more than five gallons of fuel, which allows a pilot to fly for 1 ½ to 2 hours, said Rob Heymach, president of Experimental Amateur-Built Aircraft Chapter 528 in Suffolk. The aircraft's maximum weight is 254 pounds and top speed is 55 knots or 63 mph.

Heymach said six to eight of his members operate ultralights. "The slow speed and weight make the risk factor so low," he said. "If an ultralight gets into a head-on collision with a car or boat, the ultralight would bounce off without damaging the car or the boat."

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