Revitalizing general aviation

Industry experts are enthusiastic about changes to FAA rules

For years, Glasair Aviation, a kit-plane manufacturer in northwestern Washington, thought about getting its four-person Sportsman aircraft certified for airworthiness by the FAA. Nigel Mott, Glasair’s president of operations, says of the aircraft, “We think it would be very appealing to the general aviation market.” The company never went forward, because it felt the certification process would be too onerous.

New FAA regulations released Dec. 16 have given hope to Glasair and many others in general aviation. The changes to Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations will shift the industry to a streamlined and less prescriptive process for certifying newly designed small planes and new avionics for existing aircraft. They go into effect in August.

General aviation executives were still reviewing the 550-page document when Aerospace America went to press, but they seemed pleased. They are counting on these rewritten rules to improve safety and give a jolt to an industry in which the average plane is almost 37 years old and total new general aviation airplane shipments worldwide sit at just over half of what they were before the 2007-2009 recession, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, or GAMA. New avionics, upgrades to existing aircraft and eventually new aircraft designs could result.

“Instead of the unhealthy spiral general aviation has been in, this has the potential to put us in a healthy spiral,” says Greg Bowles, vice president of GAMA.

One backer of the regulatory overhaul, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican and President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to direct the CIA, had said the certification process “needlessly” increased the cost of safety and technology updates “by up to 10 times.”

David Oord, the regulatory affairs director for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA, says that while aviation “is never going to be a cheap activity,” he hopes to see “not only new, innovative products that are exciting, but also products that are probably a lot more affordable than they are today.” He says the language released in December appears to be “very much exactly what we hoped for.”

The FAA recognized that its rules were discouraging innovation.

“The old regulations were getting to the point where they were added onto and added onto, creating a very prescriptive process” that was “really adding on a lot of expense on the manufacturing side,” an FAA spokeswoman says. The industry side couldn’t have agreed more. Bowles co-chaired the FAA committee that looked at Part 23 and came up with recommendations the FAA incorporated into draft regulations in 2013. The committee included U.S. and international manufacturers, organizations and civil aviation authorities.

The push for change can be traced to at least 2008, when the FAA first reviewed Part 23. The rules were made based on airplane designs from the 1950s and ’60s. The agency has made numerous amendments to Part 23 and granted waivers for new designs and technology on a case-by-case basis, resulting in a complex web of regulations.

Compliance levels

The changes are part of the FAA’s embrace of the safety continuum concept in which “one level of safety may not be appropriate for all aviation,” in the agency’s words. That is, the agency is willing to accept a higher level of risk for aircraft that are for personal rather than commercial transportation. This way, the regulations allow a more flexible process of certification for aircraft governed by Part 23 — planes carrying fewer than 20 passengers and weighing 19,000 pounds (8,618 kilograms) on takeoff. Within that general aviation category, simple planes carrying few passengers are to be treated differently than larger, more complex planes carrying more passengers. And it may be easier for those small airplanes to get supplemental safety equipment, since the equipment’s potential failure poses little additional risk.

The safety-continuum approach allows the FAA to accept more risk, but industry members believe the revisions will actually mean less danger because safety-enhancing technology and other innovations will reach the market faster.

Bowles describes the new regulations concerning certification as profound. In effect, with the changes, FAA is moving from a prescriptive, process-oriented approach to one based on goals and performance — the chief goal being safety.

“Instead of telling how a technology should apply, it says what the aircraft must do,” Bowles explains.

One of the new regulations states that an aircraft cabin exit design “must provide for evacuation of the airplane within 90 seconds in conditions likely to occur following an emergency landing” but does not specify how that is to be achieved. Another addresses fuel systems, and those passages are written broadly enough to permit electric propulsion systems in which batteries and fuel cells provide power. Until the new rules, electric propulsion required special exemptions by the FAA, and crashworthiness of an aircraft was demonstrated by the traditional method of putting seats and restraints onto a sled and rapidly accelerating and decelerating them. Under the new regulations, manufacturers can devise tests that would assess the ability of the aircraft as a whole to protect occupants.

Just as big a shift is the FAA’s decision to allow applicants to use consensus standards developed by organizations such as ASTM International — a voluntary, nonprofit group with members in more than 140 countries. The standards process that is being replaced made development of standards has been so complicated and costly that there has been little incentive to innovate, says AOPA’s Oord.

“That’s why you see aircraft that are produced new today are essentially the same aircraft that were produced in the 1960s,” he says. “Now if you can develop an industry consensus standard, once that gets accepted by the agency, you can have other manufacturers follow suit. The speed at which technology and innovation will follow increases.” The ASTM F44 General Aviation Committee headed by Bowles, is in the process of writing standards for propulsion systems, design construction and 18 other areas. Applicants would still have the option to use existing prescriptive Part 23 regulations or to propose their own method of showing compliance, as they can do now.

The proposed regulations treat new airplanes according to performance and complexity, replacing existing weight and propulsion divisions (normal, utility, acrobatic and commuter) with categories based on the maximum number of passengers and performance of airplanes. The FAA embraced the need for change, because as high-performance, complex lightweight planes have been introduced, the standards appropriate to them have been needlessly applied to simple, entry-level planes. The FAA says making it easier for the simplest planes — those with room for a pilot and one passenger — to become certified was one of the chief topics of public feedback during the process of rewriting the regulations.

Reducing causes of crashes

The proposed Part 23 changes are mainly a reorganization of the certification process, but they also would add standards for new planes designed to reduce two of the biggest causes of crashes: loss of control and severe icing conditions. Since crashes frequently result from inadvertent stalls at low altitudes, where pilots don’t have time to recover, new designs could improve aircraft performance and pilot awareness in those circumstances. “Forty percent of fatal accidents are [caused by] loss of control,” Bowles says. “We are fully confident the new approach can more than cut that in half.”

The FAA counts 74 fatal general aviation accidents between 2008 and 2013 that were caused by stall or loss of control, and it describes these as “of a type that could be prevented” by the proposed regulations.

To deal with severe icing — including supercooled large drops, mixed phase and ice crystals — the proposed regulations give manufacturers two options. One is to certify that their aircraft can operate safely in those conditions. The other is to demonstrate the aircraft’s ability to detect and safely exit them.

The regulations would also require new twin-engine planes to be designed so that the loss of one engine would prompt a pilot to make a controlled descent rather than maintain climb and lose control, as has happened in some accidents.

The committee co-chaired by Bowles also found that the FAA’s current certification process was slowing the installation of safety-enhancing technology in existing planes. Bowles says the new regulations will make it easier for owners of existing airplanes to modify them with, for instance, the installation of low-cost weather displays in the cockpit that alert pilots to avoid bad weather along their flight paths. Such a display would be optional and present little risk in case of failure, the FAA says.

Bowles cites angle of attack indicators as another example of the kind of relatively inexpensive technology that should become more available. The FAA last year announced that it was streamlining the approval process for the devices by allowing them to be built to ASTM standards. The agency said the indicators, which cost as little as $250, could serve as a prototype “for other add-on aircraft systems in the future.”

“There is technology that can help us, but it’s been far too difficult to develop because of the process,” Bowles says. Oord notes that the use of iPads with apps for moving maps, approach charts, flight-planning filing and more has “spread through general aviation like wildfire” because they’re inexpensive, useful and not regulated by the FAA.

The FAA says the cost of implementing the new regulations will be far outweighed by cost savings and safety benefits. Bowles notes that, while technology has helped so many other segments of society move forward, the Part 23 had “frozen us into place.” According to the FAA, because of the international nature of aviation, it has coordinated its Part 23 regulation updates with similar efforts underway in Europe, Canada, Brazil, China and New Zealand. The agency says this process should reduce the cost of both exports and imports in the aviation industry.

Ric Peri, who is in charge of government and industry affairs at the Aircraft Electronics Association, says that when he started in aviation 40 years ago, technology tended to get introduced at the military, space or airline level, then “drift downward” into general aviation. But with the growth of experimental aircraft, electronics and technology, the process may start going the other way.

Peri is adamant that regulators are not “lowering the bar on safety. The regulation of safety is the same. It’s the method of showing compliance” that’s changed.

Bowles agrees, saying a streamlined, less expensive certification process is necessary.

“Unless that goes hand in hand, you don’t get the safety outcome,” he says. “If I have a great safety device and nobody can afford to put it on the airplane, it will never produce safety.”

Oord says the economics of scale in general aviation mean new products are never going to be developed as quickly as they would be in, say, the automobile industry. There will still be costs associated with certification and litigation. But he notes that manufacturers worldwide have been watching the Part 23 process and similar efforts underway in other countries, ready to rush in with innovations.

He sees it as a new beginning for general aviation. “Today, if somebody got the spark to fly like I did when I was a wee little kid in Southern California, they’re going to see a Cessna or Piper built in 1960 or 1970. It’s not very new or novel. I want to see brand new shiny airplanes with glass cockpits that really inspire that next generation of aviation. It’s also going to be safer.”

Glasair’s Mott says the new regulations may come as a pleasant surprise to many members of the general aviation community. To this point, relatively few have probably paid attention to the rules-making process because “it’s kind of boring stuff that most people don’t spend a lot of time on.”★

About Joe Stumpe

A freelance reporter based in Wichita, Kansas, Joe has written for The New York Times, Agence France-Presse and The Huffington Post.

“I want to see brand new shiny airplanes with glass cockpits that really inspire that next generation of aviation.”

David Oord, Airplane Owners and Pilots Association

Revitalizing general aviation