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Amateur airplane builders aren't deterred by fatal crash

Air Transportation DisastersTransportation DisastersMedical ResearchNational Transportation Safety BoardFederal Aviation AdministrationAir Transportation Industry

Wings stood off to one side. The propeller lay in a carton. But the main part of Carl Kesselring's pet project was clearly recognizable as an airplane in progress.

"I don't have fear of getting in an airplane," he said, standing in a hangar in Suburban Airport in Laurel surrounded by tools, parts and the remains of a bird's nest that fell through a hole in the roof. "I have confidence in my ability to make it work properly."

Kesselring's daring hobby is increasingly shared by other enthusiasts as the number of amateur-built airplanes grows every year, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association.

But such airplanes also make up a disproportionate share of general aviation accidents, including ones that end in fatalities — raising safety concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board that call for more pilot training and safety improvements for amateur-built planes.

The NTSB recommendations stem from a study that found more than 10 percent of accidents involving amateur-built planes take place during the initial flight.

This month, pilot Barry Newgent, 73, of Davidsonville and his son Thomas Newgent, 51, of Westminster, died when their plane went down in a field in Suffolk, Va. The Newgents were going to the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight when their Rans S6S, built from a kit, crashed for unknown reasons. The accident remains under investigation

A friend said the elder Newgent had built the two-seater, single-engine plane with a wingspan of about 32 feet in his garage in Davidsonville, then moved it to an airport in Cambridge.

Kesselring, 73, a retired IBM field engineer from Riverdale who manages Suburban Airport, is president of the Experimental Aircraft Association's chapter based at College Park Airport. He said enthusiasts are motivated to build their own airplanes for various reasons, including the desire to trim out-of-pocket costs of buying a plane, the enjoyment of a hands-on education and the satisfaction of personal achievement.

For an investment of about $35,000 and his sweat equity, Kesselring said, one day he would have a kit-built plane worth $90,000 whose parts — minus the engine, sold separately — arrived in a box.

"It's a challenge. It'll be nice to say I got into an airplane and I built it," he said.

As for safety concerns, he said: "Let's see, how many people got killed in cars this weekend? Do you have a fear of getting in your car?"

According to the Experimental Aircraft Association, which has 177,000 members nationwide and nearly 2,000 in Maryland, the number of amateur-built aircraft grows by more than 1,000 each year, with some 33,000 currently registered across the country.

The NTSB, in a study released last year, said amateur-built aircraft make up nearly 10 percent of general aviation planes in the U.S. But in 2011, they accounted for about 15 percent of all general aviation accidents — and slightly more than 20 percent of fatal accidents.

Of the 224 accidents involving amateur-built aircraft that year, 54 were fatal accidents, killing 67 people, the study said.

The FAA review of the NTSB recommendations for bolstering safety is underway, and the Experimental Aircraft Association has begun to address recommendations made by federal regulators to the organization as well.

Dick Knapinski, a communications adviser for the Experimental Aircraft Association, said the organization provides webinars, workshops, technical help, advisers, safety information and other assistance. He said inspections of amateur-built crafts are rigorous.

Because each amateur-built plane is different — whether from kit or plans — it gets its own inspection by the FAA or by an inspector approved by the FAA before being certified airworthy.

Passengers can be carried only after more than 25 hours of test flights. The planes are subject to annual reinspections. Manufactured planes such as Cessnas, which don't have the variations that amateur-built planes have, also are FAA-certified.

Pilots of amateur-built planes must be licensed under the same standards as other pilots, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a Frederick-based organization, some of whose members fly amateur-built planes.

Builders of these planes say the risk is obvious and serves as motivation to put meticulous work into their aircraft. They say they invest thousands of hours and dollars to follow in the footsteps of the Wright brothers.

The 1,450 hours of labor Kesselring has devoted represents a dream that dates back to his childhood in West Virginia, where he was "building airplanes since I was knee-high to a duck — model planes."

Once his plane is built, he and his wife hope to build a home in Lusby, close enough to Chesapeake Ranch Airport that "I'm going to walk out my back door and into my hangar."

Mark Gosselin, 60, president of another Experimental Aircraft Association chapter in Maryland, at the Frederick Municipal Airport, said he spent countless hours on research learning about parts, performance and more before laying out money for a kit and engine.

"There are also inherent dangers. You do everything you possibly can to eliminate those risks," he said.

Singer and actor John Denver is perhaps the most notable fatality from an experimental aircraft crash. He died in October 1997 when his home-built, single-engine two-seater crashed into Monterey Bay in California. Denver was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and received its Freedom of Flight Award in 1993.

Barry Newgent had been a member of the aircraft organization for 20 years.

Gosselin said after learning of the Newgents' crash, "You wonder what actually happened and how it could be prevented."

A facilities director for a school in Potomac, Gosselin said he built his plane for the education, the sense of accomplishment and the joy of flying. It took six years; he completed it in 2002 and estimates he has spent $60,000 so far — much less than the cost of a new, manufactured small plane.

"You know what the consequences are if you don't do it right. You can't just pull over and check the oil," he said.

Patrick Dean of Clarksville knows this all too well. He's one of the NTSB's accident statistics, and he still doesn't know why his plane crashed during its maiden flight in January 2008.

Less than a minute and a half after take-off, his plane veered to the left during ascent, then dove to the ground near Laurel, its parachute snared in treetops as drivers on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway stopped and pried him out of the cockpit. He suffered bruises, a broken nose and nerve damage that left him with minor losses in senses of smell and taste.

He said reading about the Newgents' fatal crash was heartbreaking. He thought about the disbelief they probably felt, and that the pilot's final act may have been to avoid hurting anyone else — just as Dean considered before he came down.

The computer engineer remains amazed he walked away from the wreckage of what only minutes earlier had been an airborne investment of about $55,000 and more than 2,000 hours of sweat equity.

Since then, he has continued to pilot Cessnas — but not home-built aircraft.

"After that experience, I definitely wouldn't build another one," he said. "I'd rather spend the time I have left on this earth with my son than building another airplane."

But the father of a 10-year-old knows others will follow their wild blue yonder dreams.

After his crash, he said, another amateur builder bought the wreckage to salvage the engine.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/andsiegel

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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