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Fri, Aug 26, 2005

ANN Special Report: Epic Turboprop 'Kit' Program May Force FAA 51% Showdown

Did Epic Push The FAA Too Far?

By ANN Editor-In-Chief Jim Campbell

For years, some members of the high-performance SportPlane industry have skirted the letter of the law in regards to the extensive use of professional builders and assistance in the completion of a number of complex high-performance kit aircraft. Several years ago, for example, the now-defunct Maverick TwinJet program, under the questionable management of Jim McCotter, made promises of a twin-engine pressurized jet aircraft that would be "owner-built" under factory supervision... while privately assuring prospective buyers that their actual participation/work would be minimal. The controversial program raised a number of questions from industry veterans and FAA personnel, though nothing was decided before the company, over-hyped and under-funded, quietly closed it's doors.

Abuse of the 51% rule has recently come under scrutiny again with the revelation that the FAA has finally drawn a line in the sand with the recent refusal of an FAA inspector to allow the certification of an Epic LT turboprop under Amateur-Built Experimental guidelines. This appears to be the much feared "shot across the bow" that a number of SportPlane companies have been waiting for as some of their number continue to push the definition of what is, and isn't, truly 51% amateur-built. 

In the words of one industry observer, "If Epic isn't pushing the FAA to enforce 51%, no one is."

Epic seemed to be almost begging for the FAA's critical attention through heavy promotion of the aircraft's custom-built nature, it's high-performance feature-set, and the company's self-set, highly public profile. To many, the company seemed to be "thumbing its nose" at the FAA.

The Pratt & Whitney PT-6 powered Epic LT was pressurized, had a cruise speed of 350 knots and seating for 6 people. The builder's program for the million dollar hotrod specifies that the aircraft must be built within the factory builder center and eschews any personal building efforts outside of that. Indeed, at their most recent Oshkosh trade show exhibit, Epic personnel were pretty open about the fact that they expected to be heavily, if not totally, involved in building most of the aircraft to be purchased by LT 'builders.' Epic was also fairly outspoken with their plans to compete in the certificated VLJ market with a jet version of the LT. They claimed to be well on the way to certification... even though the FAA confirms that no application for a type certificate is on record... a necessary, albeit basic, first step in the LONG road to type certification.

Carlton M. Cadwell's Epic LT, was the focus of the FAA's most recent scrutiny. Cadwell, a dentist from Richland, WA, is reportedly a Commercial, ASEL, AMEL, Instrument rated pilot and had finished a Lancair IVP several years before. The Co-Founder of QuickMed, Inc. and Cadwell Laboratories, Inc., Cadwell's recent attempt to get FAA approval for an EPIC LT under the FAA Amateur-Built experimental protocol was denied simply because the FAA did not feel that the aircraft was built primarily by the Doctor himself.

The FAA specifically reported that inspectors in the Northwest "denied the certificate based on their examination of the aircraft. The Manufacturing Inspection District Office did an inspection and found that 51 percent of the airplane had NOT built by the builder... which is a primary requirement under the rule."

One of the major issues that attracted the Fed's scrutiny was the fact that the aircraft could only have been built in the factory building center and not in a private facility... defeating the spirit, if not the letter of the rule.

The FAA has recently stepped up scrutiny of potential products and companies that seem most likely to run afoul of the 51% guidelines and appeared to be readying themselves for these types of confrontations.

In a July 7, 2005 Memo to all FAA MIDO and FSDO offices, the Manager of FAA's Production and Airworthiness Division (AIR-200), Frank Paskiewicz, explained,

"The Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) has identified several issues regarding complex amateur-built aircraft. For the purpose of this memorandum, complex amateur-built aircraft are defined as being turbine powered with pressurized cabins with 5+ seats and aircraft that can only be built in the manufactures facility, or builder assist center, or with other commercial assistance. These complex amateur-built aircraft closely resemble and are sometimes marketed as "Business Jets." This definition of "complex" should not be confused with the definition of complex aircraft found in 14 CFR Part 61, section 61.31 - Type rating requirements, additional training, and authorization requirements.

Amateur-built manufacturers are producing and selling both complex and non-complex aircraft with "quick-build" and "builder assist" options. Some amateur-built manufacturers are informing their customers that due to the complexity of the aircraft, these aircraft can only be assembled at the manufacturer's facility. Therefore, these aircraft may not be eligible for an experimental airworthiness certificate for the purpose of operating amateur-built aircraft.

A review of FAA Order 8130.2, Airworthiness Certification of Aircraft and Related Products, as well as aircraft certification records, revealed several areas that should be improved in the amateur-built airworthiness certification processes. AIR-200 has been working with both FAA field personnel and the Experimental Aircraft Association to develop the appropriate changes."

Paskiewicz then directed FAA personnel:   

  1. The directorate will identify and report to AIR-200 all the complex amateur-built aircraft manufacturers located in their geographic area.
  2. The directorate will issue a letter (see below) to all known complex amateur-built manufacturer expressing our concerns about complex amateur-built aircraft. A copy of the letter will be sent to AIR-200.
  3. Any request from a manufacturer for an evaluation of an aircraft meeting the definition of "complex" as defined herein must be coordinated by the receiving MIDO with AIR-200. When the evaluation is completed, the receiving MIDO and AIR-200 will review the results before the evaluation is finalized.
  4. Any application for an amateur-built experimental airworthiness certificate for an aircraft meeting the definition of "complex" as defined herein must be coordinated by the receiving MIDO/FSDO with AIR-200. AIR-200 will assist the field office in determining the appropriate course of action. FAA designees will not be used. It is incumbent upon designee managing offices to contact their designees with function code 46 to inform them of this. The method of dissemination is at the field offices discretion.

The warning letter mentioned in item two is pretty short and specific, and will definitely get the recipient's attention. It briefly states:

"I understand that your company is building an (fill in the blank) aircraft. It may not be eligible for certification as an amateur-built-aircraft in accordance with 21.191 (g). To further understand your fabrication and assembly process we request the opportunity to perform a preliminary aircraft assessment to determine 21.191 (g) eligibility."

Interestingly, ANN has learned that not only is there no TC application on file for any Epic aircraft program (including the heavily hyped jet... shown below), but that Epic has allegedly neglected to submit their aircraft for FAA evaluation as to its qualification for 51% owner-built eligibility. Attempts to contact Epic officials, on several occasions over the course of several weeks, has not produced any response to any of ANN's questions about their Turboprop or Jet programs. 

Contacted by ANN, EAA responded that they were now aware of some aspects of the situation and that Cadwell had contacted EAA, which "facilitated meetings between the owner, Epic and FAA about what the next step should be. FAA suggested that the situation would be best run through FAA's customer service process, which entails going to the MIDO manager, regional office and up the chain to FAA HQ if necessary."

EAA's Earl Lawrence also emphasized that there are a "a couple of points" that are important to this situation:

  • Does the aircraft construction process meet the 51% rule? 
    • FAA did not believe it did, the owner and factory said it does, and that's why they're going through the FAA customer service process now.
  • Apparently the company had not obtained an evaluation of the aircraft construction process to see if the aircraft would even qualify for certification once one was completed.
    • According to EAA, FAA had contacted them last January stating that there were some concerns whether the finished Epic aircraft would meet the amateur-built certification standards. 

EAA also qualified that, "As for EAA, we have always maintained that aircraft builders should follow both the letter and the spirit of the 51% rule. Not following the rule diminishes the educational value and understanding of the aircraft for the individual, and also jeopardizes the current homebuilt regulations for all other builders. That's a statement we've made before and will continue to make in the future."

Dr. Cadwell told ANN that he does expect, eventually, to obtain Amateur-Built Experimental status as soon as the FAA is "educated" about the specifics of the Epic builder program... an expectation about which FAA officials seemed quite doubtful.

It is now obvious that the FAA has chosen to take a tough public stance on this issue and now seems quite willing to enforce the rules, as written. While a number of FAA staffers go out of their way to speak positively about compliant Owner/Builder Assistance programs conducted in order to AID builders in completing their aircraft; they admit to long frustration with how far the 51% rule has been pushed -- resulting in the current situation at Epic Aircraft.

The FAA's Paul Turk espoused a no-nonsense approach by stating unequivocally that, "...we are coming down on Epic."

As to what Epic might do to come into compliance, Turk's answer is simple. "We would encourage Epic to apply for Type Certification." 

More to follow...

FMI: www.epicaircraft.com, www.faa.gov, www.eaa.org

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