The gulf between aviation technology and airworthiness regulations widens almost daily as new capabilities are developed with ever-increasing speed, while key regulations remain static.
This situation has been a particular source of frustration for those operating under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) Part 23, which prescribes airworthiness standards for the issuance of type certificates for airplanes under 12,500 lb (5,670 kg; the normal, utility and acrobatic categories) and under 19,000 lb (8,618 kg; the commuter category). The standards, based on weight, do not account for modern, potentially life-saving technologies such as angle-of-attack (AOA) indicators, leaving many products inaccessible or unaffordable for the vast majority of pilots flying Part 23–certified aircraft. So pilots do without the latest equipment, or they bring aboard uncertified, handheld devices that can add workload and distraction to the job of flying the airplane.
This safety gap may close soon. In May 2013, the Part 23 Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) submitted its recommendations to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for changes. The ARC report contains two major recommendations:
- Reorganize Part 23 based on airplane performance and complexity rather than existing weight- and propulsion-derived categories.
- Rewrite certification requirements for Part 23 airplanes as a top-level regulation with more detailed implementation methods defined by reference to industry and government standards.
The recommendations would make it far simpler for new technologies to be installed on Part 23 aircraft, which in turn would help achieve the new rule’s goal of doubling real world safety while cutting in half the cost of certification. The ARC report is currently being reviewed by the FAA. Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator, said his goal is to issue a final rule based on the committee’s report and that the process could take as long as three years.
Rep. Mike Pompeo is pushing the FAA to move faster. On May 7, he introduced the Small Aircraft Revitalization Act, which would require implementation of the Part 23 ARC recommendations by Dec. 31, 2015. In introducing the bill, Pompeo noted, “The existing outdated certification process needlessly increases the cost of safety and technology upgrades by up to 10 times. With this bill, we can ensure that the general aviation industry has what it needs to thrive.”
Performance, Not Weight
Back in 1965, when the Civil Aviation Regulations migrated to the FARs, certification of aircraft based on weight made sense, as there was a direct correlation between the performance of the aircraft and the weight of the aircraft: Small airplanes were simple and slow; bigger airplanes were faster and more complex. Even in the 1980s, when Part 23 was last reviewed, today’s technologies were largely inconceivable, making weight still the best determinant of performance.
Since then, advances such as small turbine engines, composite airframes and lightweight digital electronics have raised the operational capability and performance of these small airplanes. “With today’s modern technologies, performance is not limited to heavier aircraft,” said Ric Peri, vice president, government and industry affairs, Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA). “Also, because of the broad utility base of aircraft, heavier aircraft are not always high-performance.” Weight, he added, has therefore become less relevant to the original intent of the regulation, when weight and performance were correlated.
Today’s technologies colliding with yesterday’s weight-based Part 23 regulations create a long, expensive certification process. “When the regs don’t adequately address the technology, the only tool the FAA has to use is ‘special conditions’ and this hampers efficient certification processes,” said Peri. Certification through “special conditions” can take years. By the time it is complete, the technology has often been surpassed while the resulting costs make it too expensive for most small aircraft owners to install.
Here is an example. Greg Bowles, director, engineering and manufacturing at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and chairman of the Part 23 ARC, said there is currently on the market an AOA indicator that provides early warning of a stall that could lead to loss of control in flight (LOC-I). For experimental aircraft, which are not bound by Part 23 rules, the equipment costs around $500 to $600. “In a certified airplane, the same part is a $5,000 to $6,000 installation, which changes the story about who can afford to put it in. That’s purely a bureaucratic cost,” Bowles said.
Crafting New Industry Standards
While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reviews the Part 23 aviation rulemaking committee report, roughly 100 global aviation stakeholders are addressing a key piece of the proposed changes: international standards for general aviation (GA) equipment.
To ensure harmonization of the safety requirements under a revised Part 23, the industry created a new global standards committee under ASTM International,1 which develops and delivers international voluntary consensus standards. The official scope of ASTM F44, General Aviation Aircraft, is “the development and maintenance of internationally accepted standards and guidance materials for general aviation aircraft.”
F44 standards will address the complexity and performance of the full spectrum of general aviation aircraft, including design and construction, systems and performance, quality acceptance tests and safety monitoring. The standards will better align certification requirements with the type of operation an aircraft will experience. The ASTM F44 committee will not duplicate existing standards but will reference them. F44 standards will be published in the Annual Book of ASTM Standards, Volume 15.11. F44 has six technical subcommittees that maintain jurisdiction over these standards.
Formed in December 2012, the ASTM F44 committee meets twice a year. Meetings are scheduled in conjunction with ASTM committees F37 on light sport aircraft and F39 on aircraft systems along with industry trade shows and airshows. Membership stands at roughly 100 and is open to all stakeholders with an interest in the standardization process. Visit <www.astm.org/COMMITTEE/F44.htm> for more information.
- The organization was formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.
Made more affordable, this kind of equipment could save lives. Bowles said the no. 1 accident category the ARC is trying to resolve is LOC-I, which usually involves a pilot error resulting in unintended departure from the airplane’s normal aerodynamic envelope — an issue that the AOA indicator addresses. “The way we can double safety, or cut in half accidents, is by bringing to market technology that can save lives at a price people can afford to put in their aircraft,” he explained. The proposed changes to the regulations would “put in people’s hands technology that can make meaningful change.”
The global, large commercial jet industry segment has witnessed this kind of “meaningful change” in the area of reducing controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) with the wide use of mandatory terrain awareness and warning systems. Until about six years ago, CFIT consistently ranked around no. 2 as a cause of general aviation fatal accidents each year. Then in the late 2000s, it began a slow slide down the list of fatal accident causes until last year when it did not even make the top 10. What happened? Handheld global positioning systems happened, said Bowles. “Because you didn’t have to certify them, pilots brought on board technology that saved their lives. They didn’t install it because it was too difficult to certify.”
The technology has certainly saved lives, but it often requires some elaborate adjustments. Peer into a cockpit with these kinds of handheld devices and you are likely to see wires strung across the cockpit, plugs going into the 12-volt accessory socket and suction cups on the window. There is no evidence pointing to accidents caused by extraneous wires snaking through the cockpit, but the extra equipment can be a safety risk because of distraction.
“I know folks who have failed their instrument [rating] check rides because they were playing with their lap-mounted equipment trying to make it do what it was supposed to do,” said Max Trescott, author of G1000 Glass Cockpit Handbook and the National Association of Flight Instructors’ 2008 National Certificated Flight Instructor of the Year. “When your head is in your lap rather than on the instrument panel or looking outside,” the conditions for an accident exist, he said.
Trescott said installing the instrumentation that is available to operators of experimental and light sport aircraft “would be a bonanza” for aircraft owners and the safe operation of their aircraft. In particular, he points to the AOA indicator mentioned by Bowles. “The angle-of-attack indicator is the best-kept secret in general aviation and has the greatest potential for reducing stall/spin accidents,” he said.
“Currently, our biggest accident cause is loss of control, usually on the downwind to base leg turn,” said Robert Hackman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “Pilots make the turn and get the aircraft in a configuration where it enters a stall close to the ground and goes into a spin. With the ability to provide a warning to the pilot or keep the plane from getting into the attitude in the first place, we should see a reduction in loss of control accidents.”
Hackman said the Part 23 changes are “one of the most significant efforts” AOPA is involved with today because of the new rule’s goal to increase safety by a factor of two. “If the process goes forward, you’ll see an increase in folks upgrading their avionics,” he said. “You’ll see upgrades to newer models of autopilot or first-time installation. We’ll see technology come forward in the area of envelope protection.”
Hackman’s comments point to a potential revitalization of general aviation — one of the aims of the ARC. “We knew we needed to improve the health of aviation, not just safety,” explained GAMA’s Bowles, noting that the industry has been losing about 10,000 active pilots a year for the last 15 years and last year dipped below 250,000 active pilots for the first time since 1965. “If you have an industry that is thriving, you have more people coming in, there’s innovation, people are excited, they are learning and safety improves.” Until now, he added, “we have been going the wrong way.”
Helicopters Likely to Follow
So far, the aviation community has been hailing Part 23 reform as a success due to the cooperation between industry and international regulators and the change proposals, which promise to improve safety, cut certification costs and accommodate future technological developments.
Noting this success, AEA leaders and others wondered whether a similar process could be applied for helicopters. “We said, let’s look at [FARs Parts] 27 and 29 because those are just as outdated,” said Paula Derks, AEA president. AEA co-hosted a forum with GAMA and Helicopter Association International (HAI) that brought together representatives of the rotorcraft community, the FAA and international regulatory agencies to share perspectives on how to approach a review of Parts 27 and 29, which govern rotorcraft airworthiness standards. “We asked: Do we model it after the Part 23 rewrite? The consensus was, yes,” Derks said.
The issues are similar, with the FAA frequently having to resort to special conditions or exemptions to approve new technologies, resulting in lengthy delays and soaring costs. Another problem for rotorcraft: “You get so close to the weight category [limit] just building the aircraft to do what it needs to do that some of the things that would enhance safety are left out because of the weight limit,” said J. Heffernan, HAI’s director of safety.
“The aircraft of today are heavier [than those that existed when the regulations were written] because manufacturers have been able to put in bigger transmissions, more robust rotor heads, enhanced landing gear, and the ability to carry more fuel,” Heffernan said. “Add to that five or six passengers instead of one or two and that’s a big weight difference, so you can’t add equipment that will improve [risk reduction] performance.”
Recognizing these problems, on Feb. 22, 2013, the FAA opened a request for public comments on restructuring the rotorcraft airworthiness standards for normal and transport category rotorcraft. Introducing this request, the FAA said, “We have recognized that the evolution of the Part 27 and 29 rules has not kept pace with technology and the capability of newer rotorcraft. Therefore, the FAA is interested in investigating new approaches to make the rotorcraft airworthiness regulations more efficient and adaptable to future technology. Additionally, the FAA has found that without a rulemaking effort to extensively revise the rotorcraft standards, we are left with the option of issuing multiple special conditions for the same technologies (fly-by-wire flight control systems, search-and-rescue approach, etc.).”
The comment period closed May 23, and an FAA spokesperson said the agency is currently reviewing the comments but has not yet decided on a way forward. Still, there is every indication the path will follow that of Part 23. In its request for comments, the FAA noted: “If we find adequate interest from the rotorcraft community, we would consider initiating a rulemaking effort, similar in scope to the proposed revisions of the small-airplane Part 23 standards.”
Heather Baldwin is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. A pilot and former U.S. Army officer, she writes regularly about aviation, military issues and topics related to management and workplace performance.