By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
August 1, 2013 - General aviation accident rates over the last 10 or so years are remarkably flat, meaning we crash airplanes with about the same frequency as ever.
Meanwhile, manufacturers bemoan the time and expense of aircraft certification requirements, suggesting new and safer products could be brought to market if only there weren't so many regulations with which they must comply. Can GA safety be improved even as certification rules are simplified and updated? We're about to find out.
"We want to see twice the safety at half the cost," Earl Lawrence, manager of the FAA's Small Airplane Directorate and former vice president of industry and regulatory affairs at EAA, said. "That means we want to reduce fatalities in GA by half, and we literally mean the deliverable cost of a new aircraft."
Industry and the FAA have been working to do exactly that, through the Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). Keying on a 2009 study of the Part 23 certification process, managers from the agency and policy types from within industry began meeting in 2011. In June 2013, the ARC presented to the FAA its final report, a 346-page document describing a path forward.
According to the ARC's report, the current regulatory framework for certifying new small airplanes and their components - which is the purpose of Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations - is "prescriptive in nature, written to address out-of-date technologies and structured based on broad assumptions, including airplane weight and propulsion type, which are becoming less accurate and more constraining as time progresses." In other words, Part 23, which was first put into place in 1965 and now has been amended 62 times, is past its TBO.
In its final report, the ARC presented nine broad recommendations for changes to small airplane certification rules, plus five more on the certification process itself. The ARC also presented proposals for changes to ways in which small airplanes are maintained, including Part 43, which involves continued airworthiness requirements and preventive maintenance. Of particular interest to owners of older airplanes, the ARC recommended a new airworthiness certificate category "that would align maintenance and alteration requirements of older aircraft, not operated for hire, to a level more appropriate for a privately owned vehicle."
"We've already started implementing several changes in the way we oversee production approvals, which don't require a rule change," Lawrence told us. "Obviously the big goal was twice the safety. A new term to us is 'non-required safety enhancing equipment.' Before we get a new Part 23, what are ways we can streamline the introduction of safety-enhancing equipment?" Examples Lawrence presented include angle of attack indicators, carbon monoxide detectors, and inflatable restraints.
"One of the first things we did coming out of the ARC was establish a technology review board. We take the executives of all the key areas in [FAA's Flight Standards Service] and aircraft certification and go to them saying, 'We need to find a way to streamline installation within the existing rules and policies, or what do we have to modify to do it,'" Lawrence explained.
"Streamlining the design and certification process could provide a cost-efficient way to build simple airplanes that still incorporate the latest in safety innovations," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last week in a press release. "These changes have the potential to save money and maintain our safety standing - a win-win situation for manufacturers, pilots, and the general aviation community as a whole."
The ARC's final report included draft language for a new Part 23, comprising some 27 pages. Accompanying it was a "white paper," prepared by several manufacturers of small airplanes, detailing how the new Part 23 might be applied to the manufacturing and certification process. In other words, industry has provided the FAA specific recommendations on how to reorganize and improve Part 23 to meet the goals of enhancing safety and reducing costs. All the FAA needs to do is implement the proposals, or so it would seem.
And that's the next step. According to the agency, "The FAA will review the ARC recommendations as it decides how to proceed on improving general aviation safety."
If this effort remains on what appears to be a fast track, by EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2014, we may see a formal proposal to replace Part 23, thereby enhancing general aviation safety and reducing the cost of new airplanes. Here's hoping.