Let's Bring Part 23 Rules Up to Date

Most pilots today probably don’t realize that the average piston-engine airplane in the United States is 40 years old. That’s right — they were built around the same time that disco and bell-bottom pants were considered cool. Unfortunately...


Most pilots today probably don’t realize that the average piston-engine airplane in the United States is 40 years old. That’s right — they were built around the same time that disco and bell-bottom pants were considered cool. Unfortunately, companies are having a hard time bringing more modern planes and safety-enhancing technologies to market due to the high cost and uncertainty of certification.

The Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 23 airworthiness standards that currently govern certification of small airplanes are prescriptive in nature. They are also written to address out-of-date technologies and assumptions, including weight and propulsion type, which are becoming less accurate and more constraining as time progresses. Dated regulations simply can’t keep pace with new technologies, and overly prescriptive requirements are restricting innovation and growth in the light GA airplane sector.

We see the result in our fleet of certified airplanes, which has shrunk by 10 percent in the last 10 years, while the number of experimental — or uncertified — airplanes with the latest technologies has doubled. It is as if the average 2013 model automobile could only be built using technology from the 1970s and as though anti-lock brakes, airbags, stability protection, and other standard safety features in most cars were available only on luxury models like Cadillacs, Rolls-Royces, or cars people build in their garages. Moreover, the gradual decline in the number of new pilots and overall flight activity indicates significant problems at the grassroots of our industry.

The need to change

Something needs to change. Fortunately, officials around the world agree. Global authorities have actively participated in a FAA Part 23 Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to reorganize the Part 23 regulatory structure in such a way that will enable innovation and spur the lighter GA segment. The internationally harmonized approach these officials are taking is truly a model for cooperation among authorities around the world as they set aviation regulations.

The Part 23 ARC, which the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) co-chaired, included more than 150 government and industry representatives and had as its goal to cut the cost of certification in half while doubling real-world safety for light GA airplanes — a goal stated by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a speech he gave last year to the Wichita Aero Club. This target is not only possible, but achieving it will help revitalize light GA as well as provide benefits to all aspects of the industry.

As the ARC went about its work over 18 months, it found that some of the material in Part 23 is more suited for guidance or policy than regulatory text. So the ARC worked to assure that future Part 23 regulations establish the appropriate true safety requirements, and prescriptive materials that address certain technologies and detailed means of compliance are contained in acceptable consensus standards.

Two examples help to illustrate how this works. Historically, to prevent loss of control in an airplane, the regulations placed emphasis exclusively on training. In a future, more flexible system, possibilities to prevent loss of control could include enabling the use of safety technology like angle-of-attack indicators and envelope-protection systems and spin/stall-resistant designs. A second example relates to improving survivability rates in accidents. Today’s prescriptive approach focuses high levels of scrutiny on the airplane seat itself.

Lessons learned from the experience of auto racing suggest there are many other more effective paths to improving survivability. A future approach could focus instead on performance-based cockpit survivability standards, which would allow for the development and installation of a broad range of design features, in addition to a seat including energy-absorbing materials, airbags, occupant protection zones, crumple zones, knee bolsters, and other features.

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