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RV and Aviation Safety

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At Van’s Aircraft, safety is our primary concern — both in terms of the aircraft we design and the way people build, train and operate the airplanes. Dick VanGrunsven himself has made it a point to actively promote safety in the homebuilt world, and the results – especially in the RV word – have been meaningful. There is nothing we take more seriously. To that end, some of the information on this page may seen a bit blunt or direct. We’re okay with that — consistent safe operation of the RV fleet is our ultimate goal.

Our aircraft designs and internal processes are geared around providing builders a kit from which they can successfully build a safe and reliable airplane. For any given amateur-built airplane there are two key places where safety of the finished aircraft is determined: in the kit design and manufacturing process, which Van’s controls and governs; and in the build process, which is of course the realm of the individual building the airplane in their shop.

Aircraft Kit Design and Documentation

Our airplane designs are put through significant testing and safety reviews, in which we work to ensure the aircraft that are built from our kits meet the specifications and requirements around which they are designed. We build a stress/strength margin into every design, in order to help ensure the aircraft will safely endure unusual situations and stresses within a reasonable set of limits. Our factory testing includes subjecting designs and actual aircraft to the extreme limits of the intended design. The below videos show examples of aircraft safety tests we perform at Van’s Aircraft.

Based on the results of our various design and testing programs, we determine and publish do-not-exceed limits for calculations such as max gross weight, max G-loading, etc. When we publish specification numbers for our aircraft designs, we expect that people will stick by those limits when they build, certify and fly their airplanes. While we do, of course, build in a certain safety margin or “buffer,” it’s very important to understand that these margins “belong” to the engineer – not to the builder. Pushing the limits is just that. So, unless you are fully and uniquely qualified to assess your own custom design (in which case you’re on your own, of course) we will tell you — quite directly — that the published limits are the limits. Period.

Aircraft Kit Assembly

Each airplane built from a kit is — in some large part — a reflection of the individual who built it. Van’s controls kit quality, and the builder controls and ensures the quality of the final airplane he or she ultimately builds. Quality of workmanship is critically important in aircraft assembly. While there are many areas of the airplane that are not critical load-bearing areas, there are a also number of important parts of the airplane which must be “done right.” In addition, systems design and implementation decisions need to take safety into primary account, Unique, one-off modification or designs that vary from the original design or aviation industry standards may seem like a good idea at the time, but may not be well-proven (or even proven at all).

Van’s kit assembly instructions (the “plans” and “manual”) include information describing the standards to which the aircraft needs to be assembled. It is the builder’s responsibility – and an important one – to be familiar with and learn the proper use of tools, hardware, sealants, adhesives, etc. when building an airplane to fly in the sky. The truth is, accidents have occurred because people failed to make themselves familiar with the correct methods of building their airplane. There is simply no excuse for this, and we know you’ll understand why we tell people, “Take the time to learn and do it right.” It’s not rocket science, and anyone can learn the proper methods and techniques. Conferring with an A&P or IA in the process, working with other experienced home builders and technical counselors, and reading all of the plans and standards and other industry documentation are all meaningful ways to make yourself aware of what you need to know as you progress through your project.

In addition, and of real importance, the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States has issues two Advisory Circulars, AC 43.13-1B (“Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices – Aircraft Repairs and Inspections”) and AC 43.13-2B (“Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices – Aircraft Alterations”) which describe how aircraft are to be repaired, inspected and altered. These publications are generally considered the “gold standard” by which the industry is judged, and to which the industry is expected to conform.

Safe Operation: Maintenance

Obviously, with any well-built airplane it’s important to ensure well-executed ongoing maintenance throughout the aircraft’s life. The builder of an RV may be able to receive a Repairman’s Certificate from the FAA for their airplane, which enables that individual to complete the condition inspection that’s required every 12 months in order to maintain airworthiness. But keep in mind, we need to keep our airplanes in an airworthy condition at all times, not just once a year. Legally, anyone may work on and maintain an experimental airplane; but the fact that it’s allowed doesn’t necessarily mean that just any random person should work on one. A complete focus on safety means ensuring that any work that needs to be performed is executed well, and that the airplane is maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing and is accountable for always keeping the airplane in a safe condition for operation.

Safe Operation: Airmanship

It’s difficult to over-emphasize the importance of safe aeronautical decision making and flying. It’s also a bit difficult to talk about the human factor of aviation without sounding it like a lecture, but it’s important enough that it needs to be said. The fact of the matter is that  the vast majority of aircraft accidents, including those in experimental airplanes and RV’s, are the result of decisions made by pilots that either directly or indirectly place the flight in jeopardy. Accidents very often occur as the result of chained events — where one issue or bad decision leads to the next, which then leads to the next, until finally a safety of flight problem occurs. In these cases, had any one of those events been stopped these accidents very likely would not have occurred, because the opportunity would have been removed.

Then there are the accidents that happen simply because people make a decision to exceed their own capabilities or those of the airplane. We’re talking about showboating, flying their aircraft in a manner that increases risk well beyond that which is acceptable or reasonable. Intentional low passes with hard pull-ups that result in an accelerated stall and a resulting spin into the ground, aerobatics executed too low and/or without proper training — and other forms of generally dangerous and poor decision making. This type of behavior can kill people. Please, don’t be part of that irresponsible culture. Demonstrate good airmanship and decision making to others.

How we fly our aircraft — including not only mechanical skills, but also in making smart decisions to not put ourselves and our aircraft into high-risk situations — is an important factor in safety. No matter how much work and effort goes into an aircraft’s design, the human factor operates independently. Simply put: Bad things can happen in perfectly good airplanes when human behavior is the cause.

Developing a Culture of Safety

Over the past several years at Van’s, we have strongly promoted safe operation and thinking — a cultural approach to safety. People watch what we do as the RV community, they replicate our actions, and so the way we behave has a real impact on safety. A number of terrific programs have been developed over the years that have contributed to the successful reduction of experimental aircraft accidents, with a significant percentage reduction experienced in the RV segment of the general aviation and experimental aircraft category.

  • Transition training – When people get training before they fly, specific to the model/type of airplane they’ll be controlling, they are safer as a general rule. Beyond basic airmanship, the transition training goal is to familiarize and practice in the type of airplane the pilot plans to operate. Not all airplanes are the same, and regardless of whether you’re a new pilot, or have 1000 hours in other GA aircraft, or if you are an ATP with big-iron time, getting formal training in the RV is a smart thing to do — before you go fly one for the first time.
  • Builder technical counseling – The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has a program where experienced aircraft builders are conferred the title of Technical Counselor. These people will visit you during your build, provide feedback and suggestions, and act as a sort of builder guide or coach. Experience builders are great resources of information, and this program is a great resource.
  • Other skills training – In specialty areas that have naturally increased, such as aerobatics or formation flight, specialized training opportunities are available. As a general rule, Vans Aircraft strongly encourages people to get instruction through the available means before undertaking higher-risk flying activities. Don’t every let pride or excitement get in the way of smart decisions and quality training.
  • Flight test phase-one preparation and the “second pilot” program – Flying an airplane for it’s first set of flights is inherently a somewhat risky undertaking. That risk can be minimized by preparation, careful planning and meticulous inspections, but it’s also important that the pilot be ready and properly suited for the task. Just because a builder wants very badly to be the first person to fly his new airplane, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is the best pilot for the job. Experience in similar airplanes and skills go a long way in reducing risk related to test flights. There’s a lot to keep track of in the first flights of an aircraft, and if something doesn’t go as expected the additional workload is very likely quite high. That moment is not when you want to start learning how to be a test pilot!
    • Utilize the resources available, including the excellent EAA Flight Test Manual, which includes both testing philosophy and program information as well as actual test cards that can be used while flying and evaluating an aircraft in Phase One.
    • In 2014, the FAA approved the Additional Pilot Program, which allows a properly-qualifies second pilot to accompany the pilot flying the aircraft in the Phase One test period.

What we ask of every RV owner and pilot is this: Remember that your reputation and safety — plus the safety of your passengers and people on the ground, as well as the track record of the RV family and experimental fleet as a whole — depends squarely upon you. Keep that in mind as you fly and maintain your airplanes. Over the years this approach to safety in the RV family has led to a much-improved track record in terms of unfortunate accident statistics. Let’s keep it that way!

Remember: We fly fun, fast, cool aircraft — and people are watching. They will follow your example, whether you want them to or not. Be the positive example and a good role model, not the accident statistic.