The FAA is no stranger to the occasional wave of pushback. But this week the agency was hit with a tsunami of opposition.
In a level of coordination and political mobilization not that uncommon in the industry, what seems like the entirety of general aviation has rallied against the FAA’s proposed rules for training and certification of powered lift pilots. And it did it the old-fashioned way: by penning the agency a strongly worded letter.
The FAA’s 160-page Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR), published in the Federal Register for comment in June, attempts to create a pathway to establish the initial cohort of pilots who will conduct advanced air mobility (AAM) operations using electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) and other emerging aircraft designs. Think air taxis, such as Joby Aviation or Volocopter.
But despite the clear amount of effort that went into the document, a collective of industry stakeholders spearheaded by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) fears the proposal falls short.
GAMA’s comments are supported by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA); Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA); Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA); Helicopter Association International (HAI); National Air Transportation Association (NATA); National Business Aviation Association (NBAA); and Vertical Flight Society (VFS).
Let’s start with the good. GAMA praised the “dedication and efforts” of FAA rulemakers, acknowledging the challenge of integrating an entirely new model of aircraft into the national airspace system. An accompanying comment from the NBAA highlighted a few provisions in the SFAR the groups support. These relate largely to the inclusion of powered lift instrument procedures, operations in remote areas, and extended permissions for pilot inspections.
But that’s about it. The bulk of GAMA’s letter criticized four key provisions in the SFAR, which the industry feels will impede AAM entry into service, restrict operations, and place undue burdens on pilots, instructors, and manufacturers.
Representing more than 150 of the world’s largest general aviation manufacturers, operators, service providers, and other stakeholders, GAMA has plenty of political clout on Capitol Hill. And with the added support of the NBAA, NATA, and others, chances are these comments will inform the FAA’s final rule.
So, let’s dive into the implications of the industry’s recommendations.
Where It All Started
Though GAMA highlighted the challenge of certifying an entirely new cohort of aircraft and pilots, many of the obstacles the FAA faces are of its own making.
Last year, the agency unexpectedly reversed course on eVTOL certification, opting to certify the aircraft as “special class” powered lift aircraft under FAR 21.17(b) rather than as normal category airplanes with special conditions under 21.17(a). This followed four years of communication that 21.17(a) would be the standard.
While some supported the reversal, it immediately drew criticism from eVTOL manufacturers and stakeholders, including GAMA, whose members “weren’t happy” with the change. A Department of Transportation audit of the FAA, released in June, alleges the rule change significantly impeded the agency’s progress on fostering the new industry.
Interestingly, the FAA cited pilot certification as the catalyst for its decision: “These regulations did not anticipate the need to train pilots to operate powered lift [aircraft], which take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flying, and then transition back to helicopter mode for landing.”
But the new certification path may actually complicate pilot training and certification.
It has been brought up that the skills required to pilot two existing powered lift aircraft, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey and the F-35B, are very different, though the FAA currently issues former military pilots of these aircraft powered lift pilot certificates with no distinction for these differences. The argument has been made that placing all powered lift aircraft in the same category in a similar fashion creates issues with the uneven distribution of privileges, which GAMA says can only be resolved by requiring additional type-specific training for all aircraft models.
Recommendation 1: Training Should Credit Existing Certificates
According to GAMA, the SFAR proposal “reflects the same path for new powered lift pilots as existing requirements for airplane and rotorcraft.” In other words, it’s largely hours based.
To operate powered lift aircraft, the FAA proposes that airplane and helicopter category pilot certificate holders first obtain a powered lift category rating by completing a certificate at the commercial level followed by a type rating. The add-on would require 50 hours of flight time in the category. This echoes the updated airline transport pilot (ATP) rule, which has been criticized by pilots and airlines for its arbitrarily high time requirement.
All applicants (including Flight Standardization Board pilots, who will likely be the first to fly these aircraft) must log at least 50 flight hours in the category.
This is “not a practical nor appropriate” pathway to certify initial pilots, GAMA says. It argues that airplane and rotorcraft category certificate holders are experienced pilots ready for type-specific training. In short, there is no added value or safety benefit from requiring them to train on generic powered lift aircraft—a category it contends does not yet even exist—before pursuing a type rating.
The agency itself acknowledged the lack of a generic powered lift category in the SFAR: “…The FAA has determined that, unlike airplanes and rotorcraft, it is not feasible to establish classes within the powered lift category at this time.”
In lieu of the two-step process, GAMA recommends the FAA allow a powered lift type rating to be added directly to an airplane or helicopter category pilot certificate, which would remove a big chunk of the hours requirement. This, the group says, aligns with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for certifying pilots for powered lift operations.
GAMA suggests that because the proposal seeks to qualify already-certificated pilots with plenty of experience, the curriculum should be based on training rather than hours. It points to the FAA’s removal of the requirement for military pilots to build time in unrelated training aircraft, which the agency says provides no added safety benefit.
“This requirement is not a training requirement but a time-building requirement,” GAMA wrote. “The economic realities of operating a large powered-lift will incentivize an applicant to build this time in a lower-cost aircraft that might not be relevant to the aircraft they intend to operate commercially.”
Instead of the time required for a powered lift category certificate, GAMA argues that minimums should align more closely with those for an instrument powered lift rating in 61.65(f) and the powered lift rating flight hour requirements in 61.129(e)(3) and 61.129(e)(4). Specifically, GAMA stated, “Industry questions the net safety benefit of § 61.129(e)(1), requirement for 50 hours in a powered-lift for which the SFAR proposes no alternate requirements. This requirement is not a training requirement, but a time-building requirement. The economic realities of operating a large powered-lift will incentivize an applicant to build this time in a lower-cost aircraft that might not be relevant to the aircraft they intend to operate commercially.”
“GAMA and its members propose instead that the time required in a powered-lift should be linked to meeting the minimums specified in §§ 61.65(f), 61.129(e)(3), and 61.129 (e)(4), which are training-oriented requirements rather than mere time-building metrics.”
Stakeholders were particularly critical of the 50 powered lift flight hour requirement. Few, if any, FSB pilots hold powered lift category ratings at the commercial level and therefore cannot complete flight hours in a powered lift aircraft requiring a type rating. This, the industry argues, would place the burden on the aircraft manufacturer to provide FSB pilot flight hours.
By GAMA’s estimate, requiring a full 50 hours per pilot could extend the FSB process by as many as nine months. And with a growing number of manufacturers looking to enter the FSB process at the same time, that issue is not likely to go away.
The groups contend that the SFAR’s proposed requirement of an airplane or helicopter category rating and the similarities between maneuvering those aircraft and powered lift designs justifies credit toward the 50-hour requirement. It also recommended the FAA consider takeoff and landing operations as equivalent to a flight hour, similar to the way 61.159(b) allows certain night takeoffs and landings to count toward night flight hours.
Further, the group suggests that after applicants complete an approved training course, the FAA should accept simulator flight training or supervised line flying (more on that later) as sufficient to approve newly rated powered lift pilots for commercial operations.
Recommendation 2: Ax the Dual-Control Aircraft Requirement
One unexpected piece of the FAA’s proposal would require AAM manufacturers to maintain a separate, dual-control variant of their design—or find a different model altogether—specifically for pilot training. The agency contends that before operating a model with single controls, pilots must show they can safely fly a dual-control design with an instructor.
Industry stakeholders have several qualms with this. For one, many powered lift models will not have dual-control alternatives in the near term, since most manufacturers have developed their designs with a single set of flight controls. The rule would also penalize manufacturers who have integrated advanced flight controls by proposing a single pathway for training.
“These barriers are a direct consequence of FAA reversals on this rulemaking and the content of the proposed SFAR,” GAMA says.
The groups further contend that this “one-size-fits-all approach” could compromise safety, considering the dual-control training aircraft may have very different controls and performance compared to the real deal.
The proposal also fails to consider the safety benefits of simulator-based training, which is at the core of GAMA’s recommendation. It asserts that simulator tech has come far enough to offer realistic scenarios minus the risk, proposing the FAA allow applicants to complete training in flight simulation training devices (FSTDs) under approved training courses.
These courses should cover all maneuver training in certified FSTDs qualified for training, testing and checking the airman certification standards maneuvers outlined in recent FAA rulemaking. They should also conduct part of the practical test in an aircraft, GAMA says, which would eliminate pilot-in-command (PIC) and supervised operating experience (SOE) requirements on the applicant’s new certificate.
After qualification, the groups recommend a post-qualification program under Part 135 that would require supervised line flying in the NAS in order to codify flight experience within the training course.
Currently, the Department of Defense uses simulators, augmented flight controls, and endorsed solo flight experience to allow airplane pilots to operate powered-lift aircraft. GAMA suggests these procedures could serve as a reference point for powered lift training programs.
Taking things a step further, the industry asks the FAA to leverage existing precedent and acknowledge the experience gained in one category of aircraft (i.e. airplanes or helicopters) as “creditably similar” to the requirements for powered-lift qualifications.
Accordingly, it argues the agency does not need to require SOE for all single control aircraft, like the current SFAR proposes. Rather, it should allow for exemptions and open a pathway to awarding letters of authorization to manufacturers that can demonstrate their FSTDs meet the same standard.
As things stand, SOE is not required if a single control aircraft is capable of assessing the five maneuvers laid out in 61.64(f)(1). By creating an alternate pathway, the FAA could lower the number of requests for exemption from this provision, allow SOE to be done virtually or in a simulator, or exempt trainees from SOE altogether if the aircraft requires reduced skill or knowledge to operate.
Recommendation 3: Remove the Red Tape Around Flight Simulators
In the current SFAR, the FAA mandates that manufacturers publish powered lift FSTD qualification performance standards (QPS)—essentially, the agency’s curriculum for simulators—in the Federal Register for public notice and comment. But GAMA argues this requirement could delay entry into service beyond the initial cohort of powered lift aircraft.
Instead, it recommends the FAA allow manufacturers to pick and choose portions of the QPS as appropriate for each type of powered lift design. This, it says, aligns with the National Simulator Program’s approach, which recognizes exceptions for certain FSTDs.
As GAMA points out, many powered lift manufacturers and training partners have already proposed QPSs and had deviations approved. Under the current proposal, these firms risk having to go through the QPS process all over again.
The group adds that because the SFAR would amend FAR 60.1—effectively incorporating powered-lift aircraft into Part 60—the proposed requirement for public notice and comment is unnecessary. Since it would overlap with powered lift FSTD qualifications already outlined in FAA rules, all it would do is strain time and resources.
Stakeholders further ask the FAA to expand the types of simulators that can be used for training, which the SFAR limits to Level C or higher. They argue that new, lower-level technology can meet or even surpass safety requirements, as well as lower costs for the operator—which would make the Level C provision moot.
Recommendation 4: Treat Powered Lift Aircraft the Way They Want To Be Treated
While GAMA’s first three points of contention focus on pilot training and certification, its final criticism turns the spotlight on operations.
As written, the SFAR primarily applies airplane rules to powered lift operations, with few exceptions. That inherently limits the acceptability of rotorcraft rules, which in GAMA’s view fails to consider that many powered lift designs fly just like helicopters.
The core issue here is that the proposed operating rules are prescriptive: They place all powered lift aircraft under the same regulatory umbrella, despite the wide spectrum of capabilities and use cases they possess. Accordingly, the industry is clamoring for performance-based rules.
GAMA suggests the FAA apply operating rules for both airplanes and rotorcraft as appropriate, based on the performance characteristics of each powered-lift aircraft type demonstrated during type certification. Basically, it asks the agency to treat powered-lift as airplanes when they fly like airplanes and as helicopters when they fly like helicopters.
The FAA could do this by approving individualized operating rules based on each operator’s safety management system, training requirements or other factors, achieved through an operations specification for Part 135 air carriers or a letter of authorization for Part 91 operators. This would allow them to collect and share data about the suitability of rotorcraft operational rules for powered-lift and adjust current standards.
It would help the FAA accommodate the range of vehicle types and performance capabilities in the new category. The industry recommends the agency revisit its proposal and take inventory of operational data every two years in order to make necessary refinements.
There are a few specific operational requirements GAMA highlighted. Under proposed 91.155, powered lift aircraft would be subject to the same visibility requirements as airplanes. But since they can maneuver like helicopters, possess VTOL capabilities, and can operate safely at low airspeeds and altitudes, the group contends helicopter rules should apply.
It argues the same for minimum safe altitudes, asserting that powered lift designs have similar emergency maneuverability to helicopters and therefore should be allowed to fly below the safe minimum for airplanes. In the SFAR, the FAA counters that some powered lift aircraft lack the autorotation capabilities of helicopters and could lose altitude when transitioning from forward to vertical flight.
Overwater operations are one of the few areas the FAA proposed permitting helicopter rules for powered lift. But again, GAMA disagreed. This time, it argues that some eVTOLs glide on fixed wings like airplanes when carrying passengers over water. As such, the agency should apply airplane rules to these designs.
The industry’s final point of contention concerns fuel reserve requirements, which the FAA proposes should be time-based. But because powered lift aircraft can land vertically like helicopters to find runways when fuel is low and can operate in reduced visibility, stakeholders counter with a performance-based system.
That framework would instead account for mission- and aircraft-specific conditions. Through a mission-specific range and endurance hazard assessment that covers weather, air traffic, and airport conditions, mission planning, and other factors, the industry argues manufacturers could determine how much reserve fuel is needed.
Ball Now in the FAA’s Court
GAMA and the other groups have a few peripheral concerns. The biggest is the SFAR’s Regulatory Impact Analysis, which they say excludes key costs and resources and paints a misleading picture of the FAA’s ability to implement the new rules.
But really, the industry’s recommendations boil down to four key points:
- Allow a powered lift type rating to be added to airplane and helicopter category pilot certificates.
- Add language to create an alternative pathway to powered lift training beyond dual-control aircraft.
- Grant deviation authority in the FSTD QPS process.
- Add language like “unless otherwise specified” to operational provisions applying airplane and helicopter rules to powered lift operations.
These four changes alone won’t achieve the industry’s vision. But they would help shift powered lift pilot training and certification away from hours-based standards and toward a more practical, accessible, and cost-effective pathway. They would also allow early powered-lift aircraft to operate the way they were built to be operated.
After two months, the proposed SFAR this week officially closed for comments. Now, the ball is in the FAA’s court—and the pressure is on from all corners of the industry.