We’re on the cusp of a major policy and regulatory shift that will accelerate the adoption of new technologies, from electric propulsion to autonomous vehicle operation, in general aviation, and likely will profoundly affect your flying experience in the future. You can see hints today of what the new approach heralds in the recent appearance of angle of attack indicators (AOAs) in GA cockpits and in the certification programs of innovative GA aircraft now in development. And you can hear it in the comments from participants who have been working in the formal overhaul process for the last five years and who have been closely involved in these issues for many more.
“It’s ‘Welcome to the brave new world’ for small airplanes,” says Gregory Bowles, director of European Regulatory Affairs & Engineering at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, among the organizations helping spearhead the coming changes. “Everyone is thinking with a new mindset: how to make a set of rules that will make it easier for people to get safety-enhancing technology and new airplanes in their hands.
Says Ric Peri, VP of government and industry affairs at the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA), another key player in the effort, “The changes are going to allow for rapid development of standards for new technologies as they emerge. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for the aviation industry to be trailing consumer electronics by multiple generations.”
Rules & Standards
This coming new world is the result of the FAA’s effort to reboot the rules governing how manufactured aircraft—as opposed to experimental/amateur-built airplanes—are designed, tested and built. The overhaul is called the Part 23 rewrite, for Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), which codifies these rules.
If you’ve wondered why manufactured, or certificated, aircraft have to use avionics built to Technical Standard Orders (TSO) specifications, while experimental aircraft can use state-of-the-art, non-TSO’d avionics that cost less, it’s because Part 23 requirements don’t apply to experimental aircraft. The regulatory assumption is that a consumer who buys a manufactured airplane has an expectation and deserves a level of safety greater than a customer who buys an airplane they build themselves and whose parts may be manufactured to less stringent rules. But, over time, the safeguards created to protect consumers grew to strangle the industry. In the course of 62 revisions over decades, according to critics and the FAA itself, Part 23 rules have devolved into a set of confining directives defining how safety goals were to be achieved, rather than simply setting the goals. The result: stifled innovation and unnecessary added time and expense, critics say. Peri points to the burn standards: “The regulation is so prescriptive, it actually contains the design of the burn chamber to do the burn test in. And now that design is 20-some years old.”
The rewrite aims to replace all such prescriptive rules with objective-based goals, leaving it to non-governmental experts to set the standards manufacturers use to comply, much as the auto and other major industries operate. The goal and mantra of its advocates is “twice the safety at half the cost.”
Complementing the rules overhaul, for the last five years, committees and teams involving the FAA and other agencies, manufacturers, pilot organizations, trade associations and interested members of the GA community have been developing a framework for setting these industry standards—essentially, the prescriptive elements pulled from current regs. The program is under the auspices of ASTM, an internationally recognized technical standards organization and its specially established Committee F44 (see the “Revisionist History” sidebar).
“The idea is to set standards that can accommodate and adapt to innovation and new technology, whether it’s a flying car or something we haven’t thought of, without mandating a particular design solution,” says Anna Dietrich, chairman of Subcommittee F44.10 and co-founder of Terrafugia, developer of the eponymous airworthy automobile. “The rules can focus on safety intent, and the standards deal with engineering details. That’s very valuable to anyone trying to do something innovative.”
This same drive to speed and simplify the adoption of safety-enhancing technology was behind the FAA’s red tape and cost-cutting approval in 2014 for installation of AOAs in certificated aircraft, aimed at reducing loss of control accidents.
Speculating On Regulating
The FAA released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the Part 23 rewrite, Notice No. 16-01, in March. As Plane & Pilot went to press, stakeholders were still parsing the document. Despite the years of effort spent reshaping and rewriting the rules—which Congress directed to be in place at the end of 2014—no one outside the FAA knew what would be in them. Citing policy, the agency wouldn’t comment on the rules before the NPRM’s publication. (The FAA did provide cursory responses to some of the questions Plane & Pilot submitted; asked why the rulemaking is two years behind schedule, the agency replied, “That may be discussed in the NPRM,” though a review of the document reveals it isn’t.)
But for several reasons, it was correctly assumed the rules would be written as expected. First, the FAA is a member of Committee F44, and that participation has provided clues about its thinking on rewrite issues. Additionally, the process has evolved to become part of a global effort to create an international “harmonized” standard for GA aircraft certification. That initiative now includes the FAA’s counterpart regulatory authorities in Canada, Europe, Brazil and China, all of which are F44 members, among others. In fact, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), whose equivalent certification rules are covered in its CS-23, has also undertaken a simplification effort, and already released an Advanced Notice of Proposed Amendment (A-NPA). Moreover, the EASA says its revision is “a development that has its origins in the Agency’s participation in the Part 23 Reorganization Rulemaking Committee.” Its proposals are seen as a template for the FAA’s suggested revisions. But the FAA’s newly released proposals will need significant fine-tuning before they become rules, participants in the process say, making for a lively 60-day comment period.
“It will be critical that the public and key aviation stakeholders respond quickly with meaningful comments,” urges Pete Bunce, GAMA’s president and CEO, greeting the NPRM’s release, even as he encouraged the FAA “to engage with other global aviation authorities, so a well-harmonized and effective final rule can be issued by the current administration.”
Impact In The Marketplace
A GA enthusiast would hope the skunkworks at the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) would be humming in anticipation of the unfettered route to innovation, but a realist knows that’s impractical in today’s GA economic climate, even if companies are heavily involved with F44. Asked what impact Textron Aviation expects the rewrite to have on its current and future GA product line (Beechcraft and Cessna), Michael Thacker, senior vice president, engineering, said via email, “As we find appropriate opportunities to introduce new technologies, we will act on those,” adding, “The potential opportunities created by the rewrite and a risk-based approach are being factored into our strategic decisions.”
At avionics manufacturer Garmin International, Bill Stone, senior business development manager, says while the company does “make significant investments in future products, as far as products specific to a future rule we have not read, we can’t do much.”
Not all have taken a wait-and-see approach. In developing its four-place C4, German aircraft manufacturer Flight Design provides the best current picture of what the new rules may mean for customers and manufacturers in the near future. The C4 takes advantage of the EASA’s proposed allowance for the integration of non-TSO’d glass panel avionics into a certificated aircraft. The panel features a pair of Garmin G3X Touch touch-screen primary flight display/multifunction displays (PFD/MFDs) in the pilot and co-pilot positions, while the center avionics/instrument stack includes a Garmin GTN 750 GPS/nav/comm/MFD, transponder, backup radio and steam gauges. It looks like the modern glass panel you expect to find in any new normal category production plane. But the Garmin PFD/MFDs are non-TSO’d, permitted because the screens are designated “for enhanced situational awareness,” while the instruments in the center stack serve as the primary flight instruments.
“This makes a much more attractive and up-to-date suite of avionics at a significantly more competitive price,” says Oliver Reinhardt, Flight Design’s head of airworthiness.
Also simplifying certification, the instrument configuration now becomes part of the aircraft’s type certificate (TC), giving the OEM authority to approve the installation and simplifying the process for creating new configurations simply by amending the TC.
The C4 also uses an expedited certification path for composite structures previously approved only for Very Light Aircraft in Europe, which actually boosts safety margins in the process, Reinhardt says. Another process improvement: Most testing and validation can be shifted from government inspectors to the manufacturer under the FAA’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) and its foreign regulatory equivalents, which is greatly speeding the C4’s certification timeline. The less costly avionics and reduced certification time allow Flight Design to price the C4, scheduled for certification this year, at $250,000, at least $100,000 below what it would otherwise have cost, says Tom Peghiny, president of Flight Design USA.
The C4 is being used in a new Safety Box research program, a holistic approach to ensuring occupant safety conducted by a German government-academia-industry partnership. Under current rules, all new GA aircraft seats must meet 16g crashworthy standards—the prescribed method of ensuring accident survivability. The Safety Box program aims to achieve similar or greater occupant safety utilizing automotive concepts such as “crumple zones,” which could obviate the need for requiring 16g seats, so manufacturers’ resources could be deployed elsewhere.
“Every modern car has this,” says Reinhardt. “In our program, we have identified the most common crash situations we think can be turned into survivable scenarios with a proper safety cell. This will be a unique safety feature of the C4.”
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the modernized rules, Slovenia-based Pipistrel Aircraft plans to offer its 200-knot, four-place retractable Panthera with powerplant options, including a 145 kW hybrid-electric powertrain, supported by a state-of-the-art battery system and range-extender generator unit, and a pure-electric 145 kW powertrain. The pure electric motor is designed to accept future generations of battery technologies that will increase the operating range beyond its current 215 nm range.
Keeping The Future Within Reach
Meanwhile, Committee F44’s work will continue, as it develops, drafts and adopts standards, and the staff is eager to ensure the pilot community stays involved. “If any readers are interested in joining, they could actively participate,” says David Oord, the committee’s membership secretary and AOPA’s vice president of regulatory affairs. He cites a new F44 member. “He has a [Beechcraft] Baron and an [experimental] RV8. He sees the safety benefits of the electronic flight displays and engine monitors he can put in the RV8 in a reasonable cost, and wants to see those same things in Barons.”
Oord believes the new rules could spark a GA revival. “Look at what happened to Light Sport Aircraft,” he says. “In a little over 10 years, you had over 100 makes and models designed, certified and sold. Compare that to standard certified aircraft over the same time—there were maybe one or two.”
Whether the rewrite produces the benefits supporters hope, it should at least create the environment for keeping dreams of a glorious future for GA out of the realm of fantasy. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a silver bullet,” says Terrafugia’s Dietrich of the eagerly awaited rules. “This is important to keep the industry relevant. Accommodating new technology is absolutely necessary if we’re going to survive.” Senior Editor James Wynbrandt is a multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot and an award-winning author of books and articles. He flies a Mooney M20K 252.
Revisionist History: Behind The Part 23 Rewrite
In the 1990s, FAA accident analysts were puzzled by an unexplained decline in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents. “They were scratching their heads,” says Oliver Reinhardt, head of airworthiness at German aircraft manufacturer Flight Design, whose work with the FAA predates the current Part 23 rewrite effort. “Then they realized everyone is flying with a GPS tied to their control horn, keeping them away from terrain, and even though [the GPS] wasn’t certified, it significantly increased safety.”
By the end of the last decade, the FAA realized its certification rules were impeding the introduction of new technology in GA aircraft, thus negatively affecting safety. In 2011, following a Small Airplane Certification Process Study, the FAA chartered a Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to recommend reforms. The effort received wide industry support. Concurrently, ASTM, an internationally recognized technical standards organization (which developed the standards for light-sport aircraft), was tasked with supporting the effort and established Committee F44 to develop the industry consensus standards. The committee has some 140 member groups, from ACME Aerostats to Zee Aero, with every major airframe and avionics manufacturer in between, including government agencies and industry organizations.
The ARC report, released in 2013, recommended replacing the prescriptive requirements of the regulations with performance-based rules and outcome-driven objectives. With Congress enlisted in the cause by GA’s allies, the Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013, passed later that year, directed the FAA to follow the ARC’s recommendations. The final Part 23 rules were to be released by December 31, 2014. The FAA now expects the final rule to be completed sometime in 2017.
Senior Editor James Wynbrandt is a multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot and an award-winning author of books and articles. He flies a Mooney M20K 252.