In a panel discussion at Sebring, I spoke with some sport aviation experts about the state of certification, and by the end of the forum we’d come to some interesting conclusions.
At the Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring on Thursday, I sat down for a conversation about certification with sport aviation veterans Sebastien Heintz, president of Zenith Aircraft, Tom Peghiny, President of Fight Design North America, and Dan Johnson, president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. Between them they represent around 150 years of experience in the sport aviation world. They’ve lived this world for many years, and each one has had a wealth of experience in the industry. They’re all experienced pilots, too.
The question at heart was this: How will consensus standards, the driving certification concept behind the Light Sport category, affect the production of new personal transportation and recreational airplanes going forward. As you probably know, the FAA has adopted consensus standards as the way forward for much of what had formerly been the purview of Part 23. That method, while it helped the industry turn out really airworthy new planes, came with mountains of paperwork and hot-and-cold running FAA inspectors weighing in on every detail of manufacturing, often in areas where the manufacturers had a lot more expertise. The new Part 23 will put a lot of the responsibility and freedom in the hands of the airplane makers. Under consensus standards, they will essentially be self-approving the design.
The concept, Dan Johnson pointed out, only works if the FAA is will to accept an equivalent level of safety, which is not an “equal” level, he made clear, but an “acceptable” one. He applauded the FAA for getting to the point where it made that leap.
Tom Peghiny discussed what he sees as the possible or perhaps probable future for LSA-like birds, and he thinks, based on what he’s seen from Europe’s approach to it through its Advanced Ultralight category, that we’re likely to get the removal of the speed limit from some form of LSA, along with the approval of four-seaters and the adoption of new engines.
Sebastien Heintz, who worked directly on the Zenith Alarus program that developed a two-seat Part 23 trainer and on an LSA model, says that Zenith is focusing exclusively on kits theses days, something he says makes business sense as there’s a great niche for their products, which sell for a far lower price than any LSA because it takes a lot of production hours out of the factory’s column and transfers them to the builder. And because of advances in technology, he said that building kits is getting easier, faster and less involved, a trend he sees continuing, though he did stop short of predicting 3-D printed planes. Sweat equity, he made clear, will be an integral part of homebuilding for the foreseeable future, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never built an airplane, but I know I’d love it.
At the end of the day, we got to the point where we realized that there are four big conversations that every discussion of certification rules must address. They are safety, innovation, production and cost. All of these, of course, are interrelated.
And while the Light Sport Category hasn’t been without its challenges, Johnson did point out that since its introduction just over ten years ago, there have been 140 new LSA designs approved. I haven’t counted, but off the top of my head I’m guessing that during that time we’ve had about a dozen new Part 23 light planes in that time.
Will a new Part 23 future bring with it truly affordable light planes? Johnson is skeptical. He thinks that it will bring about planes that cost a lot less than the cheapest brand new Part 23 planes on the market today, but he’d be surprised to see them get much below the level of the slickest LSAs, which is around $130,000, and he thought that around $200,000 was a more realistic bar for most.
If for that price we can get faster, more fuel efficient, four seaters, we all agreed, that might be a future that will feature a lot of airplane sales.