This is perhaps the biggest reason that there are so few new Part 23 airplanes.
The airplanes around which Part 23 has evolved aren’t your granddaddy’s Skyhawk. We’re talking about Learjets and Citations, King Airs and Cheyennes, high-capacity, multiengine turbine-powered airplanes that are fast and sophisticated and that incorporate complex systems, such as pressurization, bleed air, onboard weather radar, multisensor flight management systems, complex high-lift devices and much, much more. To ensure that airplanes such as these were safe — and there are a thousand ways that things can go wrong in the design and production of airplanes like this — the FAA has had to develop rules to address the safety concerns presented by the ever-increasing complexity of these airplanes. The failure of Part 23 is not Part 23 itself but the lack of a Part 23 light, a set of rules that would approach safety in a no-nonsense way while taking into account the fact that a Piper Archer cruises at 5,500 feet with between one and four occupants (most days, it’s one) at the hair-raising speed of 130 knots or so.
Not that 130 knots won’t kill you. It will do the trick very nicely. This is why the FAA hasn’t lost much sleep over making truly light airplanes comply with the finest letter of Part 23. The argument has been that high standards drive better safety. The only problem is that it appears to be false.
While the poor safety record of amateur-built airplanes seems to support the idea that rigorous Part 23 standards equal safety, I’d argue that the
argument is specious, based on semantic misunderstanding. Homebuilts are not certificated in the same way as Part 23 airplanes, and the vast majority of accidents in homebuilts are either the result of bad flying — as is the case with Part 23 airplanes — or hardware problems associated largely with the airplane being a homebuilt in the first place. Let’s not try to make the atrocious safety record of Part 23 models seem good in comparison to what are essentially unregulated models.
Safety is something that largely happens after certification has taken place. We need to look closely not at what we think causes crashes but at what factors actually do cause them. It’s clear that the vast majority of accidents are a result of poor pilot performance, bad weather (and our reactions to it) and low-speed loss of control. The only one of these factors directly related to certification is the last one. The first two can and should be handled by improving training, something I’d argue that we’re making great headway with, thanks to scenario-based training and the increased use of simulation technology.
It wasn’t the FAA’s intention, I don’t think, but the LSA market has given potential Part 23 manufacturers a fertile proving ground for their technologies. Currently there are a number of very interesting four-seat Part 23 airplanes under development by European manufacturers primarily known for their LSA models. Pipistrel, FlightDesign and Tecnam are all working on four-seat models that they say will be more fuel-efficient, lighter, less expensive and safer. Thankfully, EASA, the European version of the FAA, seems to be working with these manufacturers to help them through the certification process in ways the FAA can’t or won’t.
To its credit the FAA, at least certain people within the FAA, seems to understand that it’s time for a change. The agency can no longer continue with its head in the sand, pretending that Part 23 guarantees safety. It doesn’t. What it seems to guarantee is a stable level of risk that everyone agrees is far too great and a regulatory burden that has brought light airplane manufacturing to a virtual standstill.
It’s time to make changes. Ideally, these changes would slash the complexity of the process and the hurdles thrown up along the way while maintaining strong oversight and razor focus on quality and flight characteristics.
While they’re at it, regulators should take a close look at the complexity of aftermarket certifications. After all, the overwhelming majority of airplanes purchased this year will be used ones, creating a regulatory environment in which new safety products, everything from new engines and avionics to next-generation restraints, could be a much-needed shot in the arm for light aircraft safety.
It’s time to pay attention to the real meaning of light, so maybe it’s time for a new line in the sand. We’re looking to cut cost and accidents in half. What’s half of 12,500 pounds? That might be a good place to start.