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The FAA’s comment period is now closed for its proposed changes to Part 23 aircraft certification, and 61 comments have been logged online. The GA industry has been lobbying for the changes for years, in hopes that it will become easier and cheaper to certify new airplanes and bring new technologies to market. But the process isn’t complete until everyone has had their say. The comments come from a range of aircraft owners and pilots, as well as industry groups and aircraft manufacturers. A joint letter from GAMA, EAA, AOPA and the Aircraft Electronics Association implored the FAA to act swiftly to implement the proposal “in as short a timeframe as possible.” The NTSB also weighed in, noting: “We generally support these proposed changes but believe that the FAA should clearly define the certification levels and how aircraft risk and performance will be assessed during the certification process.”

The NTSB raised concerns about “exactly how the revisions will reduce loss of control accidents.” The safety board also questioned the whole framework of consensus standards. “Although the consensus standards process provides a collaborative framework for standards development, we are concerned that design standards important for safety considerations may be overlooked,” the board said. The NTSB cited a 2009 investigation that found “the ‘prescriptive design standards’ in the existing Part 23 would likely have not allowed the certification of this aircraft design [a Zodiac LSA], but the applicable ASTM consensus standards did not provide adequate protection from catastrophic aerodynamic flutter.” The safety board also raised questions about icing certification and airplane crashworthiness under the proposed new system. “In general,” the board concludes, “we concur with some aspects of this NPRM and feel that other aspects need further consideration, clarification, and refinement. … We urge the FAA to maintain the necessary level of safety as it continues to develop new pathways to airplane certification.”

Other commenters, including Kestrel Aviation and Air Tractor Inc., asked the FAA to extend the comment period. Kestrel’s letter says the 60-day public review and comment period provided for the NPRM “is not commensurate with the scope of changes proposed.” Air Tractor, a manufacturer of agricultural aircraft, also asked for more time, noting that “This whole rule change movement was originally about trying to reduce the time and expense associated with airplane certification. … But, for the most part, we believe that the proposed rules will increase the time and costs associated with airplane certification.” The FAA denied those requests for more time. All comments are available for review in the public docket.

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The FAA said today it has completed tests of new drone-detection technology at John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York. The tests, which began May 2, studied the effectiveness of a detection system developed by the FBI. Five different rotorcraft and fixed-wing UAS participated in the evaluations, and about 40 separate tests took place, the FAA said. “We face many difficult challenges as we integrate rapidly evolving UAS technology into our complex and highly regulated airspace,” said Marke Gibson, FAA senior advisor on UAS integration. “This effort at JFK reflects everyone’s commitment to safety.” A team of experts from government and industry now are evaluating the test results.

The FAA says it has received numerous reports from pilots and residents about unmanned aircraft systems around some of the nation’s busiest airports, including JFK, over the last two years. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta also recently announced the establishment of a new drone advisory committee to help the FAA and industry engage on matters of mutual concern. “We need to work with our stakeholders to establish priorities and hold each other to them," Huerta said.

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Diamond has flown its DART trainer prototype for the first time. The turboprop tandem-seat aircraft took off Tuesday for its maiden flight and it was good enough for company President Christian Dries to commit to production. “Company Chief Test Pilot Ingmar Mayerbuch and Flight Test Engineer Thomas Wimmer have been so excited about the first results that certification and serial production is green-lighted,” said Dries. The aircraft went from drawing board to first flight in less than a year.

The aircraft’s official name is the Diamond Aircraft Reconnaissance Trainer and it’s envisioned as a civilian and military trainer. It’s all carbon fiber with a sidestick and pneumatic ejection seats. It’s fully aerobatic (+7/-5G) and is powered by an Ivchenko-Progress/Motor AI-450S turboprop with a five-blade MT propeller and Garmin avionics. Its estimated top speed will be about 250 knots.

 

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New green technologies developed by NASA and the aviation industry will lead to quieter, cleaner, more efficient and safer aircraft, according to researchers and industry representatives who recently met at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia. The Green Aviation technical meeting drew more than 100 people, who shared their insights and results from research. “What NASA is doing is very exciting, especially looking at the long-term view,” said Naveed Hussain, Boeing’s vice president of aeromechanical technology. “The goals NASA has outlined are ambitious. And that’s a good thing.” The gathering showcased results generated by a series of eight technology demonstrations conducted by NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation project, which began in 2009 and wrapped up last year.

ERA’s projects included demonstrations of technologies that reduce aircraft drag through flow control, reduce weight with advanced composite materials, reduce fuel consumption and noise reduction with advanced engines, reduce emissions from improved engine combustors, and reduce fuel consumption and community noise through innovative airframe and engine integration designs. Those projects have led to continuing work in aircraft design and biofuels that NASA says will impact aviation in the future. Some of those ideas will be under discussion next month at the Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition, coming up June 13-17 in Washington, D.C. The theme of that event, which is open to the public, is “Concepts to Reality: Driving the Next Century of Flight Innovation.” The forum is organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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To remain a general aviation participant in good standing—or hell, just a participant of any standing—requires a certain resilience, an almost alien capacity to slough off disaster and munch gleefully on catastrophe. Rolling with the punches comes to mind, but somehow just doesn’t do justice to the gloom that pervades the aviation economy.

Now that I’ve got that bracing dose of reality out of the way, dare we talk about three developments that might just come together and put a little vigor into this business? Yes, I think I will, actually. I won’t take the example of a German AOPA official I saw at Aero last month who said the association was actually experiencing a small uptick in memberships, but he was afraid talking about it would spook the whole thing. Seriously. Have we become this pathetic? Well, not me. 

The developments I’m thinking of are those we’ve been reporting on: the Part 23 revision, Third Class Medical reform and an unmistakable loosening of the over-stringent and outdated regulations that keep owners from installing non-certified avionics in their aircraft. Let’s consider them one by one.

Everywhere I go, I ask about the Part 23 revision and I’m not hearing much confidence that it will materially reduce the price of new airplanes. I agree with this because no one I speak to has a clear sense yet of how it will apply directly to specific certification projects. And, in any case, when I ask what certification costs amount to in the total price of a new airplane, I never get a good answer. A good gauge is 25 percent. So if the new Part 23 reduces cert project costs by half, it will impact the final price by half of a quarter. It may be less, but I doubt if it will be more.

Buy, hey, I’ll take it. A lot of good work went into this revision and if, when it eventually percolates through the glacially slow product cycle, it just succeeds in arresting cost escalation it will be an unqualified success. So just reduce your expectations slightly because even 10 percent off the cost of a $675,000 airplane is not going to ignite sales or make it more affordable if you can’t already afford it. The real impact may be that lower cert costs will encourage projects that would not have otherwise been started. That’s good.

The Third Class Medical revision: On this one, I’m in assumption mode. It’s going to happen. Part of the reason I’m saying that is that I’m damn sick of reading tea leaves on this and trying to analyze the politics and procedural minutiae of Congress. I think there are enough sponsors and distributed political capital to make it work.

But will it work? Yes, I think it will help, but as with Part 23, don’t hyperventilate over what it will actually achieve. When I was getting my latest Class Three the other week, my AME doubted if it would have a measureable impact because like me, he knows a lot of guys who have stopped flying under the guise of medical worry but whom he said he could probably certify. On a percentage basis, very few medicals are denied. Specials exist to circumvent many disqualifying conditions. Many pilots, understandably, just don’t want to pursue them for reasons of hassle or cost.

I get that, because I have a special myself. This is a long-winded way of saying my guess is that many pilots use medical fear as an excuse to disguise the real reason they quit: lack of interest and, to a lesser extent, the cost. A determined pilot can figure out the cost thing, but not if the interest is flagging. It’s possible, if not likely, that not needing the medical will reignite lost interest. More likely, it will cause some owners who have their airplanes parked awaiting a resolution on medical reform to stay in the game. And so what if that’s a thousand people a year? Or 500. Or 300. It’s still a worthy outcome we should all cheer without slipping into flights of self-delusion. It’s just one more barrier removed or at least reduced.

More pilots staying in the game relates to the last item: EAA’s avionics STC initiative announced at Sun ‘n Fun. The first step is approvals to install non-certified Dynon EFIS in certified aircraft. More projects are planned. At his press conference, EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the idea was to keep owners at the lower end of the strata in their airplanes by offering upgrades at a third or a quarter of the prices they’ve been expecting. In a way, this one ties all three trends together. The Part 23 revision won’t help owners of older aircraft who just want a decent, affordable navigator for an old Cherokee. But the fact that this is now possible is a direct spinoff of the changing attitudes that got the Part 23 revision done in the first place. We’re told to expect more such developments and, in the end, that may be the bigger impact of the revision than simpler certification for new aircraft. Two avionics shops I spoke to were thrilled at the EAA project because they see it as an opportunity to sell upgrades that people can actually afford. New customers coming in the door is good for any industry, even if it’s only 10 a month.

Any one of these trends would be welcome, if not that impactful. Will all three taken together have a synergistic effect? We can only hope. But if for no other reason than improved morale, I’m encouraged by these developments. There’s at least observable motion to reverse steady decline partially wrought by onerous regulation. If that indicates we’ve reached bottom and are at least leveling off, what’s not to cheer?

And speaking of leveling off, in a follow-up blog, I’ll have a look at pilot training and certification trends, which may offer some encouragement of their own.   

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