New FAA policy could threaten kit plane makers

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

STATEWIDE A potential change in federal certification requirements has pitted Oregon’s kit airplane manufacturing industry and Sen. Ron Wyden against the Federal Aviation Administration. At issue is the so-called “51% rule.” It dictates that to be eligible for the FAA certification that allows the owner to do their own maintenance and repairs, the owner must also do at least 51% of the manufacturing and assembly.

Because of concerns that manufacturers were doing more than 49% of the work, the FAA has announced it’s reconsidering how that percentage is determined. The kit aircraft industry — some of its biggest companies are located in Oregon — cried foul. They argued that advances in technology and consumer demand for easy-to-build planes require manufacturers to be highly involved in building the planes. Requiring customers to perform highly technical manufacturing would drive away most of their business.

“You can’t expect a lawyer from Hillsboro to be involved in the creation of carbon fiber wings or the parts for a prop engine. We’re not happy with the FAA,” says Tom Towslee, a spokesperson with Wyden’s office.

Specific changes are still unknown, says Les Dorr, spokesperson for the FAA.

“The bottom line is that the previous criteria are outdated,” he says. “We needed to do something to ensure safety for new designs.”

No one is going out of business quite yet. Companies can still manufacture and sell kits that have been previously evaluated by the FAA. Dick VanGrusven, CEO of Van’s Aircraft in Aurora, is guardedly optimistic about the industry’s future. He thinks most companies haven’t pushed the 51% rule too hard.

Dorr says a decision from the FAA is unlikely until late this year.     

ABRAHAM HYATT



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