There has been a lot of talk lately (perhaps too much?) about aviation issues in Washington: Air Traffic Control privatization, the third class medical, and user fees to name just three. Somewhat obscured by these Capitol Hill battles is a more complicated but also arguably more important legislative issue: aircraft certification reform.
Often called the Part 23 rewrite, since it deals with FAR Part 23, this is an effort to address the way light aircraft are designed, certified, and upgraded. Like improving American schools, it’s one of those ideas that everyone seems to support, but no one can implement. That may be changing finally, with the recent release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Far from being some obscure technical proposal, the FAA’s plan is bold and (mostly) sensible. If adopted, it would affect every general aviation pilot and aircraft owner, so it’s worth taking the time to understand what it says.
This reform effort has been a long time coming. The general aviation industry, led by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), has been suggesting, pleading, cajoling and demanding for decades that the FAA update its 1950s approach to certifying aircraft and avionics. This push has taken on new urgency over the past five years, as the FAA has worked to change its culture into one that emphasizes a “compliance philosophy” and a “safety continuum.”
These may sound like fancy bureaucrat language that doesn’t really mean anything, but that cynicism is misplaced. Both of these concepts are welcome – and long overdue – responses to a changing aviation industry and our evolving understanding of risk. The first one is a shift in focus from enforcement (yanking certificates when a pilot screws up) to compliance (proactively encouraging safe flying before an incident). Many pilots claim they’ll believe it when they see it, but it’s at least a start.
The safety continuum philosophy may be even more important. In the FAA’s words, it recognizes that:
one level of safety may not be appropriate for all aviation. The FAA accepts higher levels of risk, with correspondingly fewer requirements for the demonstration of compliance, when aircraft are used for personal transportation.
That may not sound like a revolution to anyone who’s logged more than 25 hours in an airplane, but it’s a thoughtful and powerful summation of what general aviation really means. As a community, we know how to fly with almost zero accidents if we want to (the airlines show the way), but we choose to accept some risk because twin turbine engines, multi-crew cockpits and rigid rules are not practical for our operations. The FAA is explicitly recognizing this tradeoff.
Beyond the philosophical change of heart, the renewed interest in updating certification rules is a reflection of the sometimes-embarrassing state of the general aviation fleet. Experimental airplanes are often better equipped than certified ones, with powerful glass cockpits and advanced autopilots that are impractical or unaffordable for a Cessna (that goes the exact same speed, with the same number of seats). Likewise, portable technology that is exempt from certification is moving much faster than certified avionics. In the FAA’s eyes, neither of these trends are good for long term safety.
But while there is broad recognition that the current system is broken, in typical FAA style, the process to change has been deliberate. After years of study and debate, an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) was formed in 2011 to propose specific standards and actions. This group was made up of major general aviation airframe manufacturers, avionics companies and pilot organizations. After years of study and debate, and after months of review by the FAA, the official NPRM is finally here. What does it say?
What the proposal says
At heart, the new approach favors standards-based certification. This means that, rather than writing prescriptive, step-by-step rules for each component of the airplane, the FAA will use a goal-oriented approach that emphasizes the outcome of certification – not the process. They will demand reliability and safety, but they won’t describe what the specific technology looks like. Many of those specifics will live in a separate document, outside the actual regulations, commonly called industry accepted standards. The hope is that such an environment would, in the FAA’s words, “hasten the adoption of safety enhancing technology in type-certified products while reducing regulatory time and cost burdens.” In other words, have our cake and eat it too.
If this sounds like an outgrowth of the ASTM process that has been in use by Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) manufacturers, it is: ASTM standards will be a key path for certifying new airplanes under the revised rules. (You can read the proposed standards here for a preview.) But notably, ASTM would not be the only acceptable standards; manufacturers would be free to offer their own as well. Plus, the current prescriptive certification standards would be grandfathered in so that current designs don’t have to be redesigned. Once FAA calls out a standard, it stays in place, which is critical for protecting long-term investments by manufacturers.
That’s a minor but significant point. Some LSA owners have been disappointed to learn that almost all maintenance decisions on their airplanes are driven by the aircraft manufacturer, not the FAA. This is a big change from Part 23 certified airplanes, with sometimes bizarre consequences. The aviation industry seems to have learned from the LSA rule: the same maintenance process as today will be in place.
The other major advantage of this system – where laws remain vague but reference more detailed standards documents – is that it’s far easier to keep up to date. If some exciting new technology comes along that was never imagined by today’s lawmakers, ASTM groups can write new standards and fix it in a matter of months, not years. This future-proofs the new Part 23 in a way that the old law never was.
Such standards will cover a wide variety of airplanes. The sweeping NPRM would replace airworthiness standards for normal, utility, acrobatic and commuter categories, covering all airplanes with fewer than 20 passenger seats and with a maximum takeoff weight of 19,000 lbs. or less. That means everything from two place trainers to mid-size Citation jets would fall under this process.
Instead of the arbitrary and outdated weight classes, there would be four levels of certification based on aircraft performance and risk. Factors determining which category an airplane would fall under includes stall speed, VFR or IFR operations, and whether the airplane is pressurized or not. The NPRM outlines suggested breakpoints for each, based on passenger seats:
- Level 1 – no more than one passenger
- Level 2 – 2-6 passengers
- Level 3 – 7 to 9 passengers
- Level 4 – 10 to 19 passengers
There’s also the potential for a “simple airplane” standard that the FAA wants more feedback on. The suggestion is that such a simple airplane would have a stall speed of 45 knots or less, and be approved only for VFR flight. This is very similar to EASA’s Very Light Aeroplanes (CS-VLSA) standard, and it would be included in Level 1. It’s not clear if this will make it into the final rule or not.
Reading through the proposal, it’s clear that a few topics were top of mind for the FAA. In particular, three focus areas stand out: loss of control, minimum controllable airspeed in twins and supercooled large droplet (SLD) icing.
Loss of control is still the most common cause of fatal accidents, so it’s a natural focus area for the FAA. The proposal argues that “the significant reduction in inadvertent stall-related departures from controlled flight” is the “largest, single safety gain expected from this rulemaking action,” so a lot of time is spent on the topic. In a nod to reality, the proposal admits that most loss of control scenarios happen too low to the ground (often in the traffic pattern) to be recoverable. That means even the best spin training is worthless if the airplane stalls at 300 feet.
Instead of focusing on pilot skills, the FAA argues that airplanes should be designed “to use new design approaches and technologies to improve airplane stall characteristics and pilot situational awareness.” The FAA is essentially saying the industry needs to forget spin training and take the pilot out of the picture; better to make an airplane unspinnable than to continue beating the drum about training. In fact, the requirement to demonstrate spin recovery has been removed entirely, perhaps pointing to the Cirrus SR-22 certification as a test run on this idea.
Of course, how to do this is a critical question. The FAA is studiously vague on this topic, offering a few suggestions but mostly asking for ideas from airplane manufacturers. The ASTM’s proposed spec offers more details, but still leaves a lot to be decided. At least three ideas come to mind here: angle of attack indicators, new wing designs, and electronic systems to prevent stalls.
AOA systems have been a pet project for the FAA over the last few years, and it’s likely we’ll see more of them in new airplanes. These are address the pilot situational awareness issue (and we’ve debated them endlessly), but they don’t do much to remove pilot error from the equation.
New wing designs, on the other hand, offer promise. The Icon A5 amphibian is a notable example of an airplane that is designed to be very difficult to stall. A variety of aerodynamic tricks are used so the wings keep flying through even aggressive maneuvers. The airplane just mushes along, with no sharp break or wing drop. This is proven technology, but pilots usually pay the price in cruise speed for such forgiving manners.
A higher tech approach is found in new Cirrus airplanes, in the form of Garmin’s Electronic Stability and Protection (ESP) system. This is like a passive autopilot, always on the in the background, waiting to step in and gently nudge the controls back to straight and level if the bank gets too aggressive. In many ways, it’s a simplified version of sophisticated fly-by-wire envelope protection systems found on large airliners. It’s not cheap or easy – it requires autopilot servos for one – but it works.
Will the FAA get its wish and encourage the development of airplanes that don’t stall? It’s too soon to tell, but it’s certainly a bold idea.
On the subject of minimum controllable airspeed in twins (Vmc), the proposal offers another simple and somewhat radical idea. It calls for certifying Level 1 and 2 twins with a Vmc that is equal to or less than stall speed, essentially designing out the possibility of a Vmc rollover event. If the airplane gets too slow on one engine, the airplane will buffet and stall – a maneuver pilots are well-trained to recover from. There will be no need to practice Vmc avoidance because it can’t happen. Again, it’s an intriguing idea, but one that will need the close eye of some engineers to determine how practical it is.
In-flight icing is an area that never seems settled. SLD is the latest development, brought to light by the crash of a turboprop airliner in Roselawn, Indiana in 1994. Currently, there are no airplanes approved for flight in SLD conditions, a serious type of icing that can rapidly coat the wing far beyond leading edge anti-ice equipment. These new standards attempt to close this blind spot, requiring manufacturers to either specifically demonstrate safe operations in SLD or, if flying in SLD is prohibited, offer a means of detecting it and proving that the airplane can exit such conditions. It seems like a sensible proposal, although one that probably won’t affect most general aviation airplanes.
Another issue, unwritten but clearly considered, is electric propulsion. Current standards offer no realistic avenue for certifying an airplane with an electric motor, which has left many innovative airplane designs stillborn. The new goal-oriented certification approach is an attempt to leave plenty of openings for such technology, and whatever follows it. As long as the propulsion system meets the performance and reliability standards set out by ASTM, it can run on electricity, dead dinosaurs or whatever else we dream up.
However, there’s one additional change that would make electric airplanes even more cost effective. That’s the concept of certifying the propulsion system as a part of the airframe, instead of the current system that certifies both a Lycoming engine and a Cessna airplane as completely independent parts. There’s precedent for this change to a single certification: Europe’s VLA aircraft don’t have to have a certified engine or propeller, and EASA’s proposed reforms for larger airplanes suggest they will allow the engine and propeller to be certified as part of the airframe.
At this point, the FAA has only proposed such a change for simple aircraft, but if extended to Level 1 or 2 airplanes, it would be especially important for electric airplanes. Type certifying an electric motor is often overkill, because many clean sheet electric airplane designs feature motors that are deeply integrated into the airplane (maybe as many as 12 of them). Plus, such modern designs require custom motors that are very airframe-specific. A series of small electric motors across the front of a wing is not at all like a big piston engine hanging on the front. Expect GAMA to push for this change to allow for a single certification.
There’s also a refreshing recognition that so-called “non-required safety equipment,” things like portable weather displays, carbon monoxide detectors, clocks, and fire extinguishers, should be easier to certify. As the FAA says, the failure of such a device would not significantly affect the safety of the flight, so the current stringent standards only serve to prevent use of such technology. The fact that this was included in the proposal was a pleasant surprise – GAMA and others are supportive but doubted it would happen.
This is a complex subject and the change is very subtle, but it would have a major impact. In the past it was illegal to produce any item intended for installation on an aircraft without cumbersome certification processes, like a PMA. But now there is an important addition: “Any other manner approved by the FAA.” This would allow the FAA to create a policy, outside of the legislative process, that makes it much easier to add something like an AirGizmo mount to the panel. One important detail to work out here is where the line is drawn. What exactly is non-required? Expect a debate.
Finally, there’s a decidedly international perspective here: the NPRM tries to stay in formation with EASA’s recently-announced CS23 reform plan. Keeping US rules in sync with other countries should make it easier for aircraft manufacturers to design once and achieve faster certification in many countries. This would be a significant improvement over the current environment, which often forces manufacturers to satisfy numerous, sometimes-contradictory local standards. The Cessna sold in France may not match the Cessna sold in the US. So even for pilots who never fly outside the US, such a change would save money; it instantly makes the market for a potential airplane 30% bigger. That drives up volume and drives down cost.
All this is great news for new airplane designs, but what about the hundreds of thousands of airplanes that make up the majority of the piston fleet? At less than 1,000 per year, new aircraft – no matter how safe – won’t have much of an impact on the safety record. The good news is that the revised Part 23 would cover both Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs) and amended Type Certificates (TCs), the two main ways to upgrade an airplane. The wording is vague, but the goal is to streamline both, requiring fewer special conditions and exemptions.
What comes next
The publishing of an NPRM starts the clock on another step in the long, winding process towards becoming law. First there is a comment period where pilots and manufacturers can offer suggestions and complaints, then a review of those comments. After that, the proposal must wind its way through the FAA Administrator’s office, then a review at the Department of Transportation, and finally the Office of Management and Budget. As Churchill said, we are not at the end, merely at “the end of the beginning.”
But there’s a real sense of urgency to get this done. EASA has publicly stated that its final proposal will be published in May and a final decision is coming by the end of the year. That puts a stake in the ground for the FAA. There’s also a great desire by both the FAA and the aviation industry to finalize the new law before a new President comes into office. This inevitably leads to disruption and schedule changes, no matter who it is. That’s an ambitious schedule, but it is possible. As an example, the comment period for this NPRM ends on May 13, a relatively short window that keeps the process moving.
Does it deserve the support of general aviation pilots and companies?
Greg Bowles is a pilot and former Cessna engineer who now leads the GAMA effort to update Part 23. He says the proposal has “80-90% of what we were hoping to see.” AOPA, EAA and NBAA have all welcomed the new rules, and have been involved in the process from the beginning.
If the proposal does make it into law, the first result would probably be the introduction of new avionics and airframe upgrades for existing airplanes. This could be in the form of less expense glass cockpits or new autopilots with stability systems. It could also include less flashy products like new seat belts or panel mounts.
After that, there is the hope of new aircraft designs. Flight Design, for one, is betting their sleek C4 airplane on a new Part 23. It has been designed from scratch in anticipation of more flexible options for avionics and airframe technology. Others would surely follow, although such new airplane projects are notoriously time-consuming.
Beyond aircraft certification, Bowles says there’s a need for similar reform efforts in maintenance and pilot licensing as well. Together, these three areas define almost all of the ways that general aviation works. Some tentative steps have been taken in these areas, notably the move from Practical Test Standards to Airman Certification Standards for knowledge and flight tests. This update recognizes that a move from prescriptive, dated standards to a more flexible, goal-oriented approach is good for safety and cost – just like the Part 23 effort. But there’s much more work to be done here.
Whatever the final outcome, this reform process will have a major impact on almost all parts of the general aviation industry. Just like ADS-B over the past ten years, it’s a subject that cannot be ignored. Get informed, submit comments if you have them, and let your aviation organizations know you care.
A new aircraft certification law is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a process. But it’s one that transfers a significant amount of control from government to the general aviation industry. It’s up to us to take that offer and run with it.