Single-Engine Turboprop Commercial Ops in the EU Still in a Tangled Web

The issues plaguing the recent EASA rule implementation for commercial single-engine turboprop operations draw frustration and a quest for solutions.

The Pilatus PC-12 would see significant adoption as an on-demand means of transportation, should the rules surrounding the use of single-engine turboprops in the EU improve. [Courtesy: Pilatus Aircraft]

The issues plaguing the 2017 European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) rule implementation for commercial single-engine turboprop operations in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) in the European Union have drawn intense frustration—and a quest for solutions.

Kyle Martin, vice president, European affairs for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), opened the conference by setting the scene. “I’m surprised to believe the rulemaking for what we’re going to discuss…started 30 years ago.”

“We’ve gone through a journey to where we are today—we have our regulatory regime in place, we have operations happening, but there’s definitely a massive untapped potential.”

The history of the rule—known as COM-SET IMC—began in 1993 with a meeting in Rome, Italy, and ICAO published the  initial standards and recommended practices—SARPs—in 2005. EASA and QinetiQ conducted a study that had an outcome supporting SET commercial operations with the appropriate safety mitigations in 2007, further paving the way. The rulemaking itself was launched in 2012, and the official proposed rulemaking was published in 2014.

In March 2017, GAMA celebrated at AERO Friedrichshafen the codification of the brand-new regulation—2017-363—and operators could ostensibly move forward, utilizing it to guide single-engine turboprop flying for commercial purposes, unlocking that potential. Six years on, that’s only very partially true.

Defining COM-SET IMC

The U.S. has allowed for the operation of single-engine turboprop aircraft—such as the Pilatus PC-12, TBM series, and Cessna Caravan—in instrument meteorological conditions since the publication in August 1997 of a simple and clear update to FAR 135.163 (62 FR 42374) stating the equipment requirements for single-engine turbine aircraft operating under IFR on a Part 135 air operator’s certificate (AOC). Canada secured its approval even earlier, under Policy Letter 80 in 1993. Until 2017, there was no correlating approval under EASA regulatory framework. 

However, that final rule contains requirements beyond what has been required by the U.S. and Canadian aviation authorities. It includes:

  • the requirement to use routes or operate within areas “where surfaces are available that permit a safe forced landing to be exceuted”
  • the need for proof that “an acceptable level of turbine engine reliability [has been] achieved in service by the world fleet for the particular airframe-engine combination”
  • specific maintenance instructions included in the operator’s maintenance program, plus the need for an engine monitoring program or automatic trend monitoring, and “a propulsion and associated systems reliability program”
  • flight crew composition and training/recurrent check program
  • special operating procedures, including in-flight shutdown (IFSD)
  • a “safety risk assessment” 
  • a list of required equipment significantly longer than that in FAR 135.163

While these requirements may sound generally reasonable, in practice it has been a different story with operators who might seek compliance, but instead find alternate means to conduct business.

According to the folks at GAMA, with the EU’s larger population (739 million) and aggregate economy ($16.6 trillion) larger than the U.S. (314 million and $15.7 trillion, respectively), the disconnect is striking. At the time of the publication of the EASA rule, there were only 12 single-engine turboprops operating under EASA exemption, versus a fleet of 673 in the U.S.—many of those Cessna Caravans delivering cargo for FedEx, DHL, and other entities. Following EU implementation, that number has risen—to a mere 60 aircraft.

Yet the single-engine turboprop market has been a strong driver of growth in the industry overall, selling well with updated, more efficient models entering the mix, in high demand. Innovation surges throughout the turboprop segment as well, with advancements such as autothrottles, digital data management, and safety protocols like Garmin’s Autoland. So there appears to be a discrepancy between the fleet numbers and those on commercial operating certificates: “Only a small fraction of that [fleet] is actually working in the commercial IMC market,” said Martin, where their efficiency, reliability, and improvements to safety can benefit the public. One example: JetFly, represented at the SETOps conference, has 40 PC-12s in its fleet, yet not on an AOC. Contrast this with Tradewind Aviation, based in Connecticut, which just took delivery of the first of 20 more PC-12s to bring its fleet to 38 of the turboprops. All of those Tradewind aircraft have flown safely across the north Atlantic Ocean from the OEM’s production facilities in Switzerland.

As it turns out, the restrictions placed within the regulation are archaic and constrain the true potential of the modern single-engine turboprop fleet. “Operators are essentially not able to take full advantage of the high efficiency and reliability of the PC-12, and other single-engine turbine aircraft,” said Martin. “ They have to do strange routings to keep within a distance of landing sites, they have to go through an extensive bureaucratic process with their national authorities to get those routes approved, reviewed, questioned—it’s taking a lot of extra effort for no added [value].”

Performance-based rules should allow the operator to follow the intent of the rule and gain some ease of compliance. “But the inspector level at authorities,” added Martin, “they like to ask for paperwork, documentation, and justification—and re-justification. So there’s a mass of uncertainty out there.” Small operators feel that burden acutely, as they don’t have the staff to deal with the extra workload.

Some within EASA recognize that the industry suffers from over-regulation, a feeling that representatives from the agency revealed on Thursday at AERO during a report-out. The timing provided an opportunity for the assembled members of the SETOps conference to come up with specific, actionable recommendations to take to EASA to help streamline the current regulations and make them more workable.

In-Flight Shutdowns and Safe Landing Sites

Ralph Menzel spent 33 years flying as an operator and pilot prior to joining EASA in 2005. He served as the PCM for Pilatus, among other contacts with the segment. Menzel pointed out several pain points that he’d observed, including the difficulty in identifying landing fields outside of aerodromes and “getting them discussed with the national authorities.” These landing spots are significant, as, per the rule, an operator must be generally within gliding distance of a previously-deemed-suitable spot to land at all times along the route.

But achieving the needed improvements through another rulemaking Menzel feared would take “another 30 years. The easiest task is to [make the updates] through a safety promotion, interpretive material—things that we can put together right now.”

In-flight shutdown procedures form another critical area of needed clarification and work, along with safe forced landing site selection. A working group centered around the Luxembourg civil aviation authority, DAC-LU, has begun, with “good discussions already,” according to Menzel. 

For example, some countries are imposing operating weather minima on safe forced landing sites, regardless of the fact that when the engine-out approach is to an airport or aerodrome, the standard approach minima cannot be used because the aircraft is not following the published approach path. Conversely, if the safe forced landing site is not an aerodrome, no weather minima exist in the first place—and there’s typically no observation provided.

To counter this, DAC-LU conducted a study putting flight crews through a series of 50 IFSD approaches while wearing view-limiting goggles simulating IFR conditions and determined that with proper training, pilots could make the approaches safely in all weather conditions. The plan is to produce special guidance materials and an NPA for the next update to the rule.

Another problem surrounds the availability and suitability of the flight simulators for use in the required initial and recurrent training for COM-SET IMC approval, with only one available previously—a Cessna Caravan sim in Wichita, Kansas. “To take an aircraft out of revenue service, first to do a class rating course and the ACC, I probably need the aircraft out of service for six days, seven days—versus the simulator. Look, I’d love a full flight simulator based in [London] Gatwick—brilliant—but we need to be realistic,” said Edwin Brenninkmeyer, CEO of Oriens Aviation, Pilatus, and Tecnam sales and service for the British Isles.

Daher supports a number of TBM operators in the EU, many of which would like to better utilize the airplane for charter and fractional operations under a more streamlined rule that makes sense in the market. [Courtesy: Daher/Eric Magnan]

What’s Really Happening Here

But we all know what happens when excessive regulation strangles business—the clever ones create workarounds. Nicolas Chabbert, senior vice president of the Aviation Division at Daher, has been involved in the process heavily for at least the last 15 years, and Daher has supported those operators seeking AOCs under the 2017 rule. Chabbert pointed out this “elephant in the room” during the technical discussion of the rule in practice: Operators may be using aircraft to provide shared “rides” outside of the AOC to avoid the onerous burden of the rule, or while waiting for mitigations to take place.

“The reality of the [reported] numbers that we are talking about, it’s a very small fraction of people that are using the TBM in commercial operations,” said Chabbert. “We see that we have a lot of other types of activity that are coming from—[flight sharing] apps, you know, fractional [operations]—we can have some type of usage, that is shared between people, and separation between the aircraft they are renting, and the rental.”

The complex regs have done nothing to advance safety—which should have been the point—in Chabbert’s view. “Today, there’s no safety objective that has been achieved. This is a lie in Europe. We have a roadmap, we have the safety analysis, we have the technology, we have the motivation from the operators. We just need to make sure that what we are going to apply makes sense and is not going to destroy what we think is an addition to the wealth of those in the nation, of the [transportation] choices that we have in Europe.

“I was involved for those 30 years, and in fact, for real for the last 15 years, [and hoped] that I would see, as we speak today, a large majority of operations under SET. This is not the case. What can we do to make it a real goal, and how long are we going to give ourselves so that instead of looking at the facts today where it’s a minority that is under SET, it becomes a majority? Do we need two years? Five years? Fifteen years? What we need is to basically set objectives so that we can have a very simple way to operate, and make sure that the market will then grow, and that operators can make money.”

The Takeaway

With the right correction—implemented in a timely fashion—there’s much to gain as the GA industry sits at a unique tipping point, able to provide an answer to sustainable, efficient transportation solutions while maintaining a high degree of safety. At the same time, there can be clarification between private and commercial operations instead of the shades of gray prevalent today.

The industry has demonstrated its ability to drive towards greater efficiency—with a 2 percent gain as targeted since 2009—and a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The broader acceptance and distribution of sustainable aviation fuel to more and smaller GA airports underscores this promise, along with the early implementation of alternative energy sources. Add to this a commercially viable program, and it’s clear the potential this market segment has for growth in the future as well as today. GAMA plans to consolidate the outcomes from the meeting into recommendations to EASA, and it will publish the results.

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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