There are efforts under way around the country (and around the world, in fact) to redo Part 23, the iconic regulation that addresses the certification of light airplanes. While we’re still years away from a final rule, these first steps are critical to the ultimate success or failure of creating a new regulatory landscape for light aviation. The early reports are encouraging. Members of the rule-making committee tell us that they are looking at every element of the regulation in hopes of achieving a number of as yet loosely articulated goals, including cutting the number of light airplane fatalities in half and halving the cost of certification for the manufacturer. The prospect of new airplanes that cost half what they do today while being twice as safe might sound like a dream, but it’s a dream that many of the committee members share.
One thing is certain. It’s time for a change. It’s not that the rules that govern the certification of light airplanes are broken. They’re not. They’re just aimed at the wrong airplanes.
But how did we get here?
As the rules that oversee certification of light airplanes have evolved over the past several decades, they have more and more focused on the largest and fastest of what the FAA considers by statute light airplanes as regulators attempted to find every potential flaw along the production and operation chain and correct it before it became an accident. The more complex the airplane, the more intense the focus was.
The end result has been a process that is tremendously rigorous and tremendously effective at ensuring that only very high quality airplanes are awarded new certification. And by necessity, the regulations that have emerged are sufficiently complex to take into account all of the intricacies of the largest Part 23 models.
But along the way, regulators seem to have forgotten that, while they were concerned with the myriad details of emergency oxygen at Flight Level 410 on a 12,500-pound jet, the regulations they were promulgating were sweeping up light four-seat singles in their wake. The result is a Part 23 that has become too onerous and expensive for prospective manufacturers of simple airplanes to tackle.
At heart, it’s a definition problem, because it’s only the FAA that considers 12,500-pound airplanes “light” in any way. In many cases Part 23 airplanes bump right up against the 12,500-pound weight limit of the category, and often bulge past it. The 12,500-pound figure, whether it’s an accident of history or a line in the regulatory sand that somebody drew because one had to be drawn, is arbitrary. But we have had to live with it. The result is a certification category that is defined by the biggest airplanes in the category, airplanes that are fundamentally different from the actually light airplanes that many of us fly.
The deck is stacked against real light airplanes. A company that would design and certify a four-seat Part 23 model in today’s regulatory environment had better pencil in a line item for around $100 million dollars. That’s just how much it costs, in part because it’s such a complex process and in part because it takes a long time to complete and requires teams of engineers to pull off. For a start-up airplane maker, that means doing “business” for a number of years, likely seven to 10, before getting to deliver a single product. Just in terms of investment and risk, I can think of better businesses to be in, like any other one. As a result, the stories of light airplane certification programs are almost without exception harrowing affairs, characterized by delays, bankruptcies, relocations and, increasingly, foreign investment.
A company that might succeed in crossing the finish line is left with a mountain of development costs to amortize. With $100 million spent before first delivery, that means that the airplanes the company sells have to cost a lot more than what it takes to make them and work in a little profit. For that hypothetical $100 million program, that means that a company would have to tack on $100,000 in costs to each and every airplane if it sells 1,000 of them — not a likely scenario — and that’s not factoring in the substantial costs the company incurred in borrowing the money to get to first delivery. This is, of course, on top of the costs to produce and support the airplane once it’s in production. No wonder half a million dollars a copy is the new normal in the world of light airplanes.
The costs are so daunting that even Cessna a decade ago abandoned its plans to develop a line of new piston singles and instead bought an existing high-performance model, the Columbia, that somebody else had shepherded through certification and deliveries.
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.