So now comes the FAA to crack down on the light sport aircraft industry. (PDF) Just what's needed. Sales are in the tank, few companies are doing much volume and fewer yet are making any money in this oversaturated market. I've written about this before, questioning the reasoning behind the theory that additional regulation will somehow benefit the market.
Then again, this isn't additional regulation. At most, it's a tidying up of the non-compliance that we know has been going on in the industry for several years. The regulatory bodies, in establishing the LSA rule, agreed that manufacturers could adhere to the industry consensus standards established by ASTM through declaration, not via FAA direct inspection. The FAA reserved the right to audit LSA manufacturers to see how this process was working. It did and evidently didn't like what it found.
Here's the statement I found most worrying in the FAA's summary filing: "The FAA has determined that its original policy of reliance on manufacturers' Statements of Compliance for the issuance of airworthiness certificates for SLSA under the provisions of §21.190 should be reconsidered and that more FAA involvement in the airworthiness certification process for SLSA is warranted." Really? How much more? Are we headed for the kind of oversight manufacturers of certified airplanes must deal with it? If so, where's the benefit of LSA?
Will the FAA come up with the means to force the manufacturers to comply with what they agreed to do in the first place or will it impose burdensome inspection and reporting requirements? If the former, that strikes me as fair enough, if the latter, then what is, after all, a cottage industry, could get tangled up in meaningless I-dotting and T-crossing that makes for neatly filled out forms, but no real enhancement in safety.
Indeed, safety doesn't appear to be at issue here, just reporting, tracking and recordkeeping details that meet the FAA's definition of compliance. If the FAA believes any of these airplanes are built with shoddy materials or processes, it hasn't said as much. If it believes some airplanes aren't well designed, stable or built to acceptable standards, it hasn't offered any details. It just wants manufacturers to have a paper trail proving these claims. In our tests of various LSAs, we've found that some have such light control forces as to be of questionable stability and some are neutrally stable. That doesn't make them unsafe per se, but it also means they're not strictly compliant, either.
The LSA safety record is murky at best. We don't have enough hours-flown data to put valid numbers on the overall accident rateat least I haven't seen such data. A back-of-the-envelope calculation of one manufacturer's accident patternFlight Design--reveals that of the 346 on the U.S. registry, 33 or 9.5 percent have been involved in accidents, none fatal. For the Remos line, some 14 percent of the U.S. fleet has had accident involvement, with four fatal accidents. For comparison, during the same period, 9 percent the Cessna's 172S fleet had accident involvement with 9 percent of those fatal. Some 3.5 percent of the Cirrus fleet has had accident involvement, 40 percent of them resulting in fatalities. This quick look suggests that a more in-depth investigation might be useful not as a basis for more regulation but as a means of grasping risk.
None of the LSA accidents I've seen appear to be related to non-compliance or poor construction, either or both of which may come to mind when the FAA says an airplane can't be proven to meet manufacturing standards. Two of the Remos accidents involved failure of the quick-connect hardware for the wings or tail, but it's not clear if these were human error or design/construction faults. Perhaps a more rigorous review would paint a different picture. Perhaps, for instance, light control forces do contribute to higher incidence of runway loss of control, which is an accident category that LSAs essentially own.
I would guess that the larger LSA manufacturers will welcome this new FAA involvement or at least tolerate it. They have the resources to chase the niggling details and jump through hoops that the FAA erects in the name of compliance. Smaller manufacturers don't have this luxury and might struggle if the FAA gets too difficult about this.
Then there's the bilateral complication. Some LSAs are manufactured in countries that don't have bilateral export arrangements with the U.S. These companies assemble or transship through countries that do have bilaterals, but the FAA seems to be calling foul on this practice. There may very well be some paperwork exercise that will make this problem go away. We'll just have to wait and see what develops. It may depend on how sticky the FAA wants to get about this.
Either way, the FAA's oversight efforts could lead to the long-awaited shakeout we have been expecting. I get the sense that the entire industry is so fragile that it won't take much regulatory pressure to chase some manufacturers from the market. That's not an entirely bad thing. If safety is really at issue, what I'd like to see the FAA do is revisit the 1320-pound weight limit. I just don't see how LSAs can be more crashworthy without benefit of more structure.