Gaining a high-tech edge with Experimental aircraft

March 14, 2016

These days in business, people expect leading edge technology and often go to great lengths to get it.  This begs the question, if you are going to use an aircraft for business, wouldn’t you want to have a cutting edge vehicle?

To understand this subject, it’s important to discuss the features of two major classes of aircraft, Experimental and Certified. There is a reason why so much new and cutting edge technology can be found first, and often exclusively, in Experimental Class aircraft. That reason lies in the way the aircraft certification regulations have been drafted.

A Certified aircraft has to go through many years of design prior to starting the certification process, then that design is reviewed and tested for three or more years before it can be given a stamp of approval by agencies such as the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) in the USA. An aircraft is not only certified as a vehicle, but as a process of building that vehicle.

Once a plane has been certified, it cannot be changed without going through another fairly lengthy review to check if that change affected the airworthiness of the originally certified aircraft. Bottom line, before any Certified aircraft is actually ready for market, it may be as much as five years out of date.

In these days of rapid advances in electronics, materials, manufacturing processes and equipment, certified aircraft are put in an extremely poor position to compete in the small aircraft market.  The telling sign is that there have been more Experimental aircraft built and registered than all makes of Certified aircraft combined, for the last six years running.

Experimental aircraft can be updated as frequently as one cares to do so, and new designs are continually being introduced.  When newer avionics (flight instruments) are developed, Experimental aircraft can update their panels to immediately take advantage of features such as terrain detection and avoidance, emergency air to land, or simplified radio communication.  Most Certified aircraft will never see such advances, and those that do will wait many years to be able to introduce them.

One might argue that Certified aircraft are safer as a result of this lengthy review process, but reason suggests otherwise. My Switchblade flying sports car has a GPS system with terrain avoidance, radios that help you (not get in your way) during an emergency, and an electronic power system that tells you if you have a light out anywhere in the vehicle, and yet flies as stably as any other aircraft.  How is that less safe than a Certified aircraft without those features, or without the Switchblade all-vehicle parachute, which very few Certified aircraft have?

Statistics show only a partial truth, as the lower accident levels of Certified aircraft hide the fact that a fair sized portion of certified hours flown are during flight instruction, with a well-trained flight instructor ready to take the controls as soon as flight becomes unsafe. Experimental aircraft are infrequently used for flight training, and that different usage makes a big difference in the safety statistics.

Clearly there are a number of issues to consider when determining what aircraft best suits one’s needs, and safety statistics are but one of these. Looking at this from an overall business perspective, where you want every advantage you can possibly get, my question is why not leverage your aviation purchase with a vehicle that literally shouts “high tech”?

–  Martin Swift

Switchblade, Samson Sky, Skybrid, and Skybrid Technology are trademarks or registered marks, and are used with permission on these pages.

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