Life-saving revisions to certification rules gain traction

October 11, 2012

part 23
A significant decline in controlled flight into terrain tracks closely with the advent of GPS in the cockpit, driven primarily by a proliferation of handheld and other units not subject to Part 23 certification requirements

The promise of saving lives—and reinvigorating an industry—has put an overhaul of aircraft certification on the fast track, globally.

Expected benefits include cutting the cost of aircraft certification in half, while doubling general aviation safety.

Talk of tiered certification and streamlined regulations was initially met with reluctance, but details have made a difference. Greg Bowles, director of engineering and manufacturing for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said drilling down to data that shows a significant safety benefit has already been realized with handheld GPS technology reducing controlled flight into terrain accidents helps make a compelling case for easing installation of other life-saving technologies in both new and existing aircraft.

Bowles and AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Rob Hackman briefed reporters Oct. 5 on progress made by the aviation rulemaking committee convened by the FAA in 2011, including revised target dates for implementation of certification regulation overhauls worldwide. The FAA is on track to lead the way, with expected completion of Part 23 revisions by July 2015—an effort previously on track for 2018. FAA counterparts in Canada, Europe, Brazil, and elsewhere around the globe have signaled plans to follow suit.

In simple terms, the revised certification system would be based on safety requirements, rather than narrowly defined prescriptions for each individual aircraft system and component. This kind of regulatory scheme would give regulators the power to adapt more quickly to the introduction of new technologies, while retaining oversight of how those technologies are tested and proven.

“We would end up with a set of regulations that allow us to do a lot more, in a lot more cost-effective way,” Bowles said.

Angle of attack indicators offer a case in point that illustrates what is possible: Such devices, which have proven ability to help pilots avoid loss of control, can be purchased for around $800 for installation in noncertified aircraft, while a certified installation can cost 10 times that much, a cost burden that forces many light aircraft owners to opt out. This cost hurdle is one reason so many GA aircraft are still flying with technology that’s 40 years old or more—not coincidentally the average age of the GA fleet.

Automobiles have come a long way since 1972, but GA aircraft built in that era have not, and continue to fly without many technologies that have life-saving promise, from sophisticated cockpit crash protection to autopilots that can prevent crashes in the first place.

The data already show a significant decline in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents that corresponds with the rising popularity of handheld GPS units. Bowles said that while certified, installed GPS systems also played a part, they account for a fraction of the overall decline in these accidents. Making such safety systems cheaper will amplify their effect.

Such a dramatic reduction in certification cost would remove one of the most significant obstacles to the development—and sales—of new GA aircraft, particularly at the entry level. Enhancing safety with technology, such as an autopilot capable of preventing stalls, or at least warning a pilot about potential aerodynamic trouble, might also encourage more people to fly.

“If we can remove some of the stress, then a lot more of the population might feel comfortable coming in to general aviation,” Bowles said. Owners of older aircraft would be far more likely to adopt new technology.

“That’s exactly the way we would envision this impacting,” Hackman said.

ASTM International, which sets the standards for light sport aircraft (LSA), will play a similar role in the certification of general aviation aircraft weighing 19,000 pounds or less, including a category that will apply to general aviation models with a gross weight of 2,700 pounds or less. A new ASTM committee on general aviation aircraft plans to meet October 25 and 26 in Atlanta to begin working on the details.

This kind of standards-based approach will significantly improve efficiency, and the ability of regulators to respond as new products are developed, Hackman said. In the light sport industry, standards are typically developed in six to 10 months, Hackman said, “whereas rulemaking we talk about in years instead of months.”

Regulations pertaining to light sport and experimental aircraft will not be affected by the changes to Part 23 and its counterparts around the world, Bowles said.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.