Risk Management, Wrong airframe, Wrong experience level.


Continuing on the theme, let’s look at a different risk management topic. It is often the first decision a builder makes. Stop and think about that: when a guy is new, he makes a critical decision, before he has much experience or good advice to base it on. This choice is which airframe to build.

What brings this topic up is related to a previous story. A few days ago I mentioned that a builder was pursuing having a very long prop hub made for a plane that I thought was a poor choice for new idea testing, especially if the guy had little experience in building, flying and testing. The airframe in question is a Rutan Vari-eze.

Before anyone gets up in arms, I am not attacking the design, Burt Rutan or anything else. The point here is that it is not a good airframe to test new ideas on, and many of the people who like this airframe have little direct personal experience with them, and often the same people have not previously re-worked or modified other engines installations, they just like the idea of the plane, and often view the Corvair as a cheap alternative to the approved O-200. This isn’t a radical nor blasphemous thing to say. Would you like to guess who would agree with me the most on this statement? I will bet Burt Rutan himself. I have met the man in person more than once, read a lot of what he has written, and I really doubt that anyone who has done the same is going to disagree with my assessment of Rutan’s position.

On our main website for the last 10 years, unchanged, is the following quote:

“A VariEze is not one of my favorite aircraft, due to its fairly high landing speed and comparatively poor pilot protection in an accident. If you gave me my choice of aircraft to have an off-field landing in, a VariEze would be near the bottom of the list. Most VEs are overweight, and the Corvair motor is slightly heavier than the recommended hand prop Continental. This is a weight sensitive airframe, where a few pounds are not to be taken lightly.”

Vari-eze fans often tout this as a very ‘safe’ aircraft. The statistics do not bear this out. Taken directly from the 1981 Canard Pusher, Rutan’s in-house newsletter, the following note, written by Burt:

“Homebuilt accident record statistics were reported for a three year period by The Aviation Consumer last year. They show an overall accident rate for VariEze of 2.59 (1.55 fatal) per 100 aircraft during the 3 years. Average for all homebuilt aircraft was 3.93 (1.07 fatal). We are not happy with this result, as we had expected the VariEze to be significantly better than the average homebuilt due to it’s strong structure and good stall characteristics.”

I am not saying it is a ‘bad’ plane, I am just pointing out that it had a higher than average fatality rate, and that is flying with the recommended engine, in an era where pilots flew more, when the design had active support and virtually all the pilots were original builders of the airframes. Change this to a non recommended engine, with a 8″ prop extension that I am sure will overload the crank, add in a second owner who had little or no Varieze experience and you are now speaking of a very high risk aircraft. I know pilots of great skill with ice water in their veins under pressure who would not fly that combination, even if I built the engine, far less a guy on a really tight budget building his first Corvair.

I have looked at this combination before. CC#17 and #25 host Arnold Holmes, a 20 year close friend of mine, owns and flies a 1,000 hour VE. He had it at Oshkosh two years ago. He and I have very carefully looked at putting a very powerful Corvair on his airframe. One of the motivators for the joint project was we were pretty sure that we could edge the Corvair speed record to 230-235 mph. Arnold has a lot of flight time in the airframe, knows more about composites than anyone most people have ever met, is an A&P/IA of outstanding record, and above all else, he has incredibly good judgement around aircraft. Guess what conclusion we came to: It wasn’t worth doing. A speed record is a dumb goal to risk much on. I am sure we could have done it at moderate risk, but to what end? After a lot of conversation, Arnold decided that he can’t bring the VE to our little grass strip, His son can’t begin to learn to fly the VE from the back, and his girlfriend likes Side by side seating much better. His solution? Simple, he bought my Tailwind project and is putting a Corvair on it and probably selling his VE. Steel tubing, 170mph and grass strip friendly, and a straight forward tractor installation appeals a lot more.

We have four builders who are planning on putting their Corvair on a VE. Let me directly say that I think people have a right to do high risk things in life. My goal isn’t to talk them out of it, but I will openly discuss what I think the risk is. If they are going to do it, logic says they are better off with my input. But I am also free to say that I am not going to assist them if I think that they are making poor decisions or are ignoring risks rather than minimizing them. That isn’t a policy that just applies to VE’s. I have refused to help some people who were building Pietenpols and 601’s with poor attitudes. A guy with no credible experience in test flying and engine development trying to have an 8″ prop extension made because he thinks he needs it for stream lining is not exercising valid judgement. I spent some time with him at a recent College, and he is a nice guy, but as I have pointed out, Gravity Physics and Chemistry don’t care about that. Today, I am sure he thinks I am an A-hole who is pissing on his rights and dreams. I am ok with him thinking that for a long time. It is a far better alternative to him thinking of me supporter right up through a first flight that ends poorly.

Think that was a little too dramatic? Fear mongering on my part? Just old WW pontificating and verbally being mean to a guy that has different ideas? Don’t answer until you read about my friend Steve Parkman.  Great human being, very clever, family guy, friend to many people; Gravity Physics and Chemistry didn’t give a damn about any of that. You can read the link directly below on how he was killed on the very first flight of his VE with a 4 cylinder Geo engine. You put him in a steel tube aircraft that was a tractor with a 50 mph stall speed, a much better test platform, and he would have lived through that landing. Anyone who wants to have some sort of ‘composites are safe’ comment, spare it, it doesn’t apply to the VE configuration on an off airport landing.


Just in case that was a little too dry and technical for you to think about it being about a human being that many people loved, look at the link to the newspaper below. If is an interview with Steve’s widow just after the accident where she is now unsure how she is going to house and feed her kids. Note that it was two days before Christmas 1998:


A few years ago when I was on a three-day insomnia run, I wrote a story in the middle of the night for the Corvaircraft discussion group about being friends with Steve. I often called him during the day, but in the afternoon he would always break off the conversation to get his kid in person at school. When I heard he was killed, the first thing I wanted to know was what time it happened. For a while I had nightmares about a kid waiting alone in a school yard for a parent that was not going to arrive. 

Lest anyone get off track and think that I am saying homebuilding in general is too high risk, lets bring this back in focus for a moment: This is about risk management through good decision-making. Right now, Dan Weseman has three kids who are roughly the same age span as Steve Parkman’s kids were then. Why am I not down at Dan’s telling him to re think about flying? For one simple reason; Dan has excellent judgement, is running a low risk test series, and he has made good choices all the way. If he saw any issue, he would stop and fix it correctly before the next flight. He leaves nothing to chance. In contrast, Steve didn’t always do these things. He might have gotten away with it, except for his choice of airframes as a test mule. That single choice, and it was a bad one, made all the difference. Simply put, it was the wrong airframe, and he was the wrong guy for a completely unforgiving test plane. He was a great guy, but that never counts. All that mattered was having the judgement to pick a better test plane, and on that point he came up short.-ww


If anyone wants to write me debating that pusher aircraft with composite or wood fuselages are not good test planes, please read the Vari-Viggen/O-320 accident report below first. I was on hand for the crash 10 years ago. I had spent the previous day admiring the man’s craftsmanship and personal style. He was a stand out in a group of 1,000 people at Frasca. The soy bean field he had a forced landing in was big and flat enough that I am pretty sure I could have landed at DC-3 in it. His fuselage did not protect him. It had poured rain the day before and it was later thought he had water in the fuel. With many planes this would have been an non-accident, but the man’s airframe choice did not work for him on that day. His wife had driven there and previously left for a 6 hour trip home. Some one was going to call her, but a pilot with 50+ years of experience stopped them so the woman could get all the way home and back to family before finding out she was a widow.



2 Replies to “Risk Management, Wrong airframe, Wrong experience level.”

  1. I met Steve and saw his plane. We talked about his fuel injection system for an engine for my KitFox. I also knew another man that died in a Long Easy there ar Ryan field. I do have to agree with you, Ezs are not hour friend off field.

    Thanks for the article.

    I accidentally, I am an electrical engineer by trade and gave on EFI long ago.
    I came to the same conclusions that you have so skillfully communicated in other posts.

    I think it was a product of the times back in the 90s.
    Contact magazine, Ross Aero, Tracy Cook…..Lots of people doing lots of things. Some successful, many not so much so.

    Kevin Hanna
    Palmdale CA.

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