On August 2, 1997, at 1545 eastern daylight time, an experimental Rutan Defiant, N20SR, was destroyed by fire after it had impacted the ground shortly after takeoff from Alma, Michigan. The private pilot received serious injuries, and one of two passengers received minor injuries. The 14 CFR Part 91 flight was departing Alma, Michigan, en route to Saranac Lake, New York. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan had been filed.

The pilot reported that he had departed from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, earlier in the day and had landed at Alma, Michigan, for refueling. While refueling, he discovered the front propeller had received minor damage from taxiing on an unprepared surface at Oshkosh before takeoff. The propeller was repaired and the pilot performed a flight test before departing for his destination airport. After the test flight, the pilot and two passengers departed.

The pilot reported the aircraft climbed out normally during takeoff until it reached 500 feet above ground level and then the canopy opened. The airplane banked to the right and then the left. The pilot loosened his shoulder harness in order to pull down the canopy. One of the passengers tried to hold the canopy closed while the pilot flew the airplane, but was unable to keep it closed. The canopy came open again and the pilot chose to execute an emergency landing into an old clearing which was surrounded by forest. During impact, the pilot was knocked unconscious, and one of the two passengers received minor injuries. The two passengers pulled the pilot from the airplane which had already started on fire.

The pilot reported that the canopy was only partially latched, and the safety latch was not fully engaged when he had departed. He reported that he had focused to much on the propeller problem and had not ensured that the canopy was properly latched. The safety latch used on the airplane was not the safety latched specified by the designer of the airplane, but the pilot had designed and installed his own safety latch.

The pilot reported he suspected that a piece of the foam in the rear seat headrest had jammed between the back seat and the canopy cross support bar, which made it difficult to close the canopy.

The pilot reported that he made four mistakes; they were: "not fixing the headrest thinking that it was only a piece of loose foam, omitting the checklist for the final flight, omitting checking the latch, and when I changed Burt's [Rutan] safety latch system not coming up with a design that was better."

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