News: On Changes to 51% Rule Guidance, VanGrunsven “Cautiously optimistic.”

Among the current kit manufacturers, Van’s Aircraft is indisputably the volume leader. Nearly 5600 RVs are flying, and like all other kit manufacturers, the company has a lot to lose if the guidance behind approval of kitbuilt airplanes becomes significantly stricter. But founder Dick VanGrunsven was, in an interview Friday, concerned but far from panicky. In fact, he is “cautiously optimistic” about the overall picture for homebuilts, which includes the potential for certification under the Primary category.

But for now, VanGrunsven is focusing on the short term, rallying builders and pilots of all Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft to contact the FAA in support of the existing rule structure. “We need to get the word out,” he said, “so builders can write the FAA. We need to prove that what we have now [in quickbuild kits] is good and that builders benefit. Pilots and builders have a big part to play. Potentially, it’s the best thing we can do right now.”

He is concerned that changes to the rules “could be disastrous” if taken to the extreme. “We have had similar FAA meetings before, where little change resulted. And we thought this round was more about fine-tuning the certain regulations and directives. We spent a lot of time debating ‘shall’ or ‘must,’ but we were surprised where it went, regarding the compliance checklist.”

In the final report released on Feb 15, the FAA said that it was in agreement with several proposals offered by the Amateur-Built Aircraft Aviation Rulemaking Committee to reduce "excessive" commercial builder assistance, but could not reach consensus on ways to determine who gets credit for fabrication and assembly among the kit manufacturer, commercial assistance and the builder of record. In the report, the FAA gave little to no hint on how the new guidance would be written. “But indications are that the checklist [the 8000-38 form] will get tighter,” VanGrunsven said.

Considering the ways new rules might alter the makeup of quickbuild kits as we know them, VanGrunsven said, “The best case is that the quickbuild kits will become a bit more basic, maybe putting 10-20% back onto the builder. We could do that and still have a reasonably attractive product. Over the years, FAA-accepted rules interpretations have permitted quckbuild kits to evolve as they have, benefiting both builders and kit companies. Our job will be to convince the FAA that the way the industry has evolved [in terms of the quickbuild kits themselves] is generally favorable."

According to VanGrunsven, "Our objective was to stay as close as possible to the current rules. In our initial proposal, we wanted to look at a couple of current quickbuild kits and create a new checklist from that. Now it looks like the FAA is going to create the new checklist first and then see how it fits the actual kits."

In the meantime, as the industry waits for the FAA to publish a draft of the revised Advisory Circulars, builders can continue their work with a clear conscience. "If you're now building a 51% rule compliant kit, there's no problem. The old rules still apply," VanGrunsven confirmed.

One reason for VanGrunsven's moderated optimism is the hope that the Primary category could be used to alleviate the stress. "With Primary, all the rules change. The 'major portion' rule goes out the window. Getting the FAA to look at this as an alternative is a legitimate possibility," he said.

Check back this week for more analysis on the Primary category.

KITPLANES Editor at Large Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for 23 years and in magazine work for more than 25. He is a 4500-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glastar Sportsman 2+2.

3 Replies to “News: On Changes to 51% Rule Guidance, VanGrunsven “Cautiously optimistic.””

  1. As I read it, the FAA's Amateur-Built Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) was established "to make recommendations regarding the use of builder and commercial assistance..." and not to rewrite the 51% rule. FAA should indeed address the use of commercial assistance, but leave the "51% rule" alone.

  2. Great point, Sebastien. I have changed the headline to suit. You're right: The rule itself is not going to change, but the documents that provide guidance for inspections by the FAA and DARs will.


  3. As anyone who has built an aircraft knows, it's nearly impossible to do it without a little help, and it's certainly not enjoyable to always work alone. On the other hand, some professional builder centers and blatant professional builders have been skirting the spirit of the law for years.

    Granted, the pros generally make a good, safe product; but that's what factories are supposed to do.

    Amateurs are supposed to be amateur builders, and their results needn't all look like pros did the work. (Remember the gorgeous Pinewood Derby cars? Dads made those. The dingy, asymmetrical, and usually-slow cars were carved by the Cub Scouts.)

    Would I like to see pro-quality work on my finished airplane? Yes. Would I like to have at least something to do with building the airplane? Yes, also. Fact is, though, if everybody's doing it (one way), then everybody pretty much has to do it (that way).
    Primary Category, however, is a whole 'nother box of snakes; let's not get snookered into that!

    As an industry, we need to be careful. Now that the FAA has effectively eliminated ultralighting (through the changes in the 2-seat training spec and for all intents and purposes incorporating it into LSA, eliminating Part-103-useful trainers and again forcing ultralighters to teach themselves to fly in their single-seaters), it's bound to next address scratch-building and kit-building, leaving only the factories to provide finished or near-finished aircraft.

    If it were really about safety, the FAA would encourage as much professional input as possible; but if it were really about control, the FAA would just make it more-complicated. Let's see which way this goes...

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