Blowing Smoke on Certification Standards
When I read the headline from Icon Aircraft: “A5 Achieves Historic Safety Milestone,” I was curious to see what this was all about. The press release went on to make this statement: “ICON is proud to announce that the A5 will be the first production aircraft in history to be designed to and completely comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s full-envelope Part 23 spin-resistance standards once production starts.”
Wow. I wasn’t aware that the Icon A5 was going to go through FAA Part 23 certification. Bravo for them.
The only problem was, it wasn’t. While there was nothing technically incorrect in the wording of Icon’s release, there were all kinds of implied messages that were way off base. The A5 wasn’t going through the Part 23 certification process at all. The company was, instead, planning to use the current, admittedly rigorous Part 23 spin-resistance standards to drive its design and flight test, but the FAA wasn’t going to be doing that testing. And Icon, at least in this press release, made no claims about any of the numerous other flight qualities that FAA standards address.
In the release, Icon went on to say, in essence, that it was committed to producing an airplane with exceptional low-speed handling, something today’s FAA standards pretty much demand. It’s great stuff. It’s just not remotely the same as Part 23 certification, and the seeming implication in the release that the flight-testing had somehow been blessed by the FAA — that’s the only way your airplane can be Part 23 anything, by the way — was regrettable.
I just flew the GippsAero GA8 Airvan, which recently completed FAA testing; it’s a remarkable airplane, thanks to the standards and Gipps’ jumping through the FAA’s multitudinous hoops to prove its airplane met them.
Icon is not doing that. Instead, it is doing the testing itself. Is that commendable? Absolutely. But, again, it’s a far cry from Part 23.
There are a number of good reasons for the paucity of new Part 23 airplanes, so many in fact that I can only promise that I will leave most of them out. Suffice it to say, however, that the process is exacting, expensive, time consuming and fiendishly difficult. And did I mention expensive?
Just consider flying qualities, which is only one of a number of difficult chores that lead to certification. To show its airplane flies acceptably, the prospective manufacturer has to demonstrate to the FAA in actual flight tests that the airplane performs within the exceedingly strict and completely sensible flying standards the FAA has established for light planes.
When it certified the SR20 around a dozen years ago, Cirrus Design reportedly spent $60 million to do it.
A few years later the FAA launched LSA, a self-certification process designed for very light aircraft, including two-place fixed-wing airplanes like the Icon A5. The idea was to bring down the cost of certification by letting the manufacturer do a lot of the quasi-certification work themselves.
That’s what the A5 is, an LSA, an emerging LSA.
Icon might very well be committed to building the safest LSA it can possibly build. If so, that’s a great story.
That’s the story it and all LSA makers should be clearly telling.
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