Sometimes, I'm glad our readers are paying attention because I'm not sure we always are. By "we," I mean the editorial we; the crack, watchdog aviation press. Specifically, I'm referring to the FAA's hangar policy toward homebuilding that escaped the Level 4 bio containment last week and never should have.
It set the AVweb (and KITPLANES) mailboxes alight for a couple of days. During AirVenture, we broke the story that the FAA's new airport use policy considers homebuilding to be a "non-aeronautical activity." Absurd on its face, right? Well, yes, but the policy statement still made it alive out of 800 Independence. EAA published this somewhat obscure story on the policy just ahead of AirVenture. Although the policy clearly lists building airplanes as a non-aviation activity, the story wasn't clear on that point. A sharp-eyed AVweb reader, alerted by his airport manager, contacted us and we chased it down.
When we queried EAA, the association said it considered the new policy a major win. Huh? The back story—still not clear from EAA's initial story—is that the victory part is because the FAA agreed to add "final, active assembly" of an aircraft to the hangar policy. Before that, homebuilders weren't mentioned at all and thus had no protection. Still, I wouldn't call the current policy as written an improvement, since the policy clearly still disallows homebuilding as an aeronautical use. That gives airports pre-disposed against amateur builders a powerful lever to restrict or eject them from hangars. (But only at airports where FAA funds are expended.)
EAA's Sean Elliott, who handles government affairs for the association, acknowledges the point. In a conference call Wednesday, he said EAA wants to petition the FAA to remove the homebuilt restriction entirely and/or make building an airplane an approved listed aeronautical use. When we asked why this wasn't done in the first place, Elliott said it's one step at a time with the FAA. I get that. But I also wonder why we feel it's our duty to jolly the FAA staff along on issues that should be no-brainers, and this is certainly one.
You really have to wonder how educated people in government agencies allow such absurdities to reach street level. The underlying goal here is to prevent airports that receive FAA funding—so-called obligated airports—from becoming just more E-Z-Storage sites. You know how it works. At some airports, hangars don't have airplanes, but they do have boats, cars, gas grills, furniture, RVs, motorcycles and so on. The policy is intended to curb that and I think I'm on firm ground in saying most aircraft owners and pilots would back that idea. But in typical government fashion, the one-size-fits-all approach banned homebuilding through a twist of logic that eludes me.
But here's what interesting. The policy also says the FAA will work with airports that have insufficient aviation demand to permit short-term non-aeronautical use of hangars. In other words, RVs and gas grills. In additional other words, the FAA showed some admirable flexibility. Somehow, amateur-built airplanes escaped this largesse, but we are right to ask … no, demand it. I have to imagine that someone in the agency would have raised this issue before the policy got out. Maybe several someones. But somehow, it still reached the final stage as a stated policy. There's just no explaining it. I would have also wished that EAA had alerted it members in plain language of what it was up to. This story warranted some moral support from the members and EAA would have been right to seek it.
Here's hoping to fix it. There's no logical reason—even in the extreme—that owners building airplanes shouldn't do this activity in airport hangars on airports supported by FAA dollars, at least in principle. Many builders fabricate at home and assemble at the airport, but some have no choice but to do it all in an airport hangar. Homebuilders are a vibrant part of the aviation economy and they deserve just as much support as the Citation owner across the ramp. The FAA airport guys need to get out a little more and see what goes on out here in the hustings.
There is good reason that some building activities should be monitored. Spray painting, for instance, welding or work involving flammables and stinky chemicals. These shouldn't be banned entirely, in my view, but those doing them should be reminded of local codes and of respecting their neighbors' expensive airplanes. But those aren't FAA issues; they're local airport management issues.
The FAA needs to simply unequivocally bless homebuilding to provide the bedrock support. Airports will take care of the rest. Locally. And why should be we afraid to insist on it?
Here's a follow-up story from EAA this week.