October 28, 2012

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said earlier this month he expects the joint industry-FAA committee reforming FAR Part 23 to recommend a better rulemaking approach that will allow more design innovation and cut certification costs for new light aircraft.

Committee participants include Eli Cotti, NBAA’s director, technical operations, and committee Co-Chair Greg Bowles, director, manufacturing and engineering for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

“More aircraft design innovation and technology implementation in a more efficient manner is what it’s about,” said Cotti. “Those of us serving on this FAR Part 23 reform committee believe the changes will benefit everyone concerned: manufacturers, buyers, pilots and the thousands of companies that depend on light aircraft to serve their customers and keep their companies profitable.”

Virtually all standard piston-powered aircraft in the U.S. and the majority of today’s light business jets have been certified under Part 23 or their pre-1965 version, Civil Air Regulations Part 3. FAR Part 23 comprises airworthiness standards for aircraft under 12,500 pounds or under 19,000 pounds in the commuter category. The regulation was written for relatively low-speed and low-altitude piston aircraft, but when Cessna’s Bravo light jet was Part 23 certified in 2006, those rules got stretched. And that, said Bowles, is one of the problems. 

“In adapting FAR Part 23 to fit new, more complex airplanes that fly 450 knots at Flight Level 450, the FAA added a number of new rules that are burdensome for small piston-engine airplanes,” Bowles said. He praised the FAA for its receptiveness and help in making the reforms possible. One of the committee’s earliest suggestions was a fundamental change in rule applicability, using an aircraft’s performance and complexity on a rule-by-rule basis, rather than a one-size-fits-all weight and propulsion method.

Both NBAA and GAMA had long asked for that change.

Speaking to the Wichita Aero Club in Kansas on Oct. 11, Huerta said, “We’re at a critical time. The decisions we make as an industry in the next two to three years will define aviation for 25, 30 or 40 years.” He defended the existing FAR Part 23, saying it had helped make the U.S. aviation system the safest in the world, but admitted that the last FAA review of the rule was in the 1980s, and “a lot has changed since then. We believe there is a better way for the future – one that retains the safety lessons we’ve learned from the past while providing for a more proactive and flexible approach to certification. Instead of specifying a design – we are specifying a safety outcome that we would like to see.”

An FAA spokesperson explained that a “safety outcome” takes a broader view, rather than simply dictating a design. “For example,” said Alison Duquette, “we have a regulation that addresses an energy-absorbing seat.  However…it may be more appropriate to focus on the airplane as a systemto offer crashworthiness protection to all occupants. This may include enhanced restraints, energy-absorbing structure and survivable volume protection.”

For his Wichita audience, Huerta also decried regulations that lag technology, saying, “We need to find a better way to allow good, life-saving products into existing aircraft.” Bowles agreed, pointing out that today’s rules require installed equipment to be FAA-certified, which is too costly for many GA aircraft owners. One good example, he said, is an angle-of-attack indicator, proven to dramatically cut the number of stall/spin accidents. Current rules require the $8,000 FAA-approved version for installation, but essentially the same unit is available uncertified for $800.

Bowles said that the FAR Part 23 committee is working closely with the long-established FAA Joint Safety Committee to apply emerging technologies so as to lower accident rates. Handheld GPS navigation devices with terrain warning features, for example, are dramatically reducing the number of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents. Although not FAA-certified, use of such units has bumped CFIT accidents from number two on the list of most common fatal accidents to number five. 

“And the rate continues to drop as more pilots use these,” said Bowles. “This is the kind of major shift we want to see in safety.”

Speaking in the city that manufactures more than 40 percent of all standard general aviation (GA) aircraft in the world, Huerta said he expects the FAR Part 23 changes to slice new-aircraft approval cost by as much as half by ‘harmonizing’ the FAA’s rules with those of other countries. He cited a required wing-strength test, saying that each country might have a slightly different requirement for the test, costing manufacturers millions of dollars to make slight changes to satisfy each country. 

“This new approach saves time and money for companies because it’s one testing standard across the globe – whether it’s the United States, Canada, Brazil, Europe, New Zealand, China or Russia,” he said.  An FAA spokesperson added that the current FAR Part 23 is already 90 percent harmonized with similar rules used in other countries.

The FAR Part 23 review committee is expected to complete its work next year, and Huerta said his goal is to issue a final rule based on the committee’s report. “It may take as long as three years, but our goal is to advance that as quickly as we can,” he added.