The Part 23 Rewrite: A Disaster in the Making?

Simplifying the rules for aircraft certification seems like a terrific idea, but there are also pitfalls in taking such radical steps.

Part 23 Rewrite blog

Part 23 Rewrite blog

Suddenly, the so-called “Part 23 rewrite” has grown from a simple tweaking of aircraft and equipment certification standards to a full-on international effort to harmonize regulations around the world. Changing the rules of the game for how manufacturers approve new technology for light airplanes by shifting from the federal aviation regulations (or their international equivalent) to ASTM standards is a watershed event in the history of aviation. It will reduce the time and cost to bring new products to market, allowing GA to keep up with rapid advances in technology while, hopefully, bringing prices for the consumer way down.

This is a big deal — so we’d better not screw it up.

The idea behind the Part 23 rewrite is to simplify aircraft certification rules while improving safety and cutting costs. What’s not to like about that? Well, the more people I talk with about the coming changes, the more I worry we’re headed down a path we’ll live to regret.

Aircraft manufacturers wonder how in the world they’ll build and test aircraft to the liberalized ASTM standards while satisfying the FAA’s demands for robust design. Consumers like the idea of paying less, but some rightly worry about being faced with buying inferior products.

The concerns arise in part from what has gone on in the market for light sport aircraft. LSAs, built and approved to the ASTM standards, were supposed to revolutionize the aviation industry. Well, some LSAs are good, and some aren’t. The Cessna Skycatcher, built in China with an interior that looked cheap because it was, turned out to be an abysmal failure in the market when the price rose by tens of thousands of dollars. People stopped buying them and Cessna pulled the plug on the program.

Then there's the cockpit technology. Flight Design, an innovative European company, plans to keep the price of its under-development C4 four-seater to around $250,000 in part by selling it with fully IFR-approved Garmin G3X Touch avionics originally designed for the experimental market. That's an incredible change from current certification rules requiring the much pricier Garmin G1000 cockpit at a minimum for new airplanes with integrated glass.

Now don't get me wrong, the G3X suite is highly capable, it will be linked directly with the IFR GTN 750 WAAS navigator, and it's backed by Garmin, so you know you’ll love it. What I worry about are the Part 23 airplanes that will come to the market with some other avionics supplier’s gear. Under the new ASTM framework, will the electronics from these smaller manufacturers be as good? Will they be as safe?

Dynon and a few other names in the experimental aircraft industry produce decent boxes, but I’ve seen avionics in some homebuilts that are barely adequate for basic VFR flight. What happens when lesser equipment winds up in a new IFR airplane and a few years later the manufacturer goes belly up? I suppose it will be up to the consumer to decide whether the ASTM-approved airplane he’s about to plunk down $250,000 to buy is worth it. If the name on the glass boxes in the instrument panel don’t say Garmin or another very familiar name on them, my inclination will be to pass.

I have my fingers crossed that the Part 23 rewrite will indeed strengthen our industry. I just hope we don’t look back 10 years from now and wonder what we were thinking.

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