“It’s always been done this way” begins a familiar statement for someone defending a long-standing practice. The reference here is to the nearly 10-year-old category of Light-Sport Aircraft and how these airplanes are permitted to fly across the USA. It is no longer being done the old way and the results are good.
The Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft (SP/LSA) rule will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year in 2014. After more than a decade of deliberation, the FAA issued the SP/LSA rule at AirVenture Oshkosh in 2004.
The first fully manufactured LSA — called a Special LSA — came on the market in April 2005. Since then, an amazing 132 models have been offered to customers.
While not all these models have found market success, many have established themselves as airworthy, capable, affordable airplanes (at least when compared to other brand new aircraft pilots may consider for purchase).
To say the LSA market has arrived in the world is a gross understatement. The truth is that the new category has so changed the aviation firmament that conventionally certified aircraft may eventually meet similar standards.
So, how is it these aircraft become “certified?”
Welcome to F37
In 2012, ASTM’s F37 committee — the group that wrote and maintains the standards used to gain acceptance for Light-Sport Aircraft — celebrated its 10th anniversary. This worldwide group of mostly volunteers produced — from scratch — specifications for the design, performance, quality acceptance tests, and safety monitoring for LSA. ASTM standards guide the preparation of Pilot Operating Handbooks, maintenance manuals, and a system of Continued Operational Safety Monitoring to advise consumers of maintenance needed to keep their aircraft in good operating condition.
How can a bunch of unpaid people do what FAA is challenged to do with multibillion-dollar budget? Think Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and you’ll get the idea. A collaboration of hundreds of laypeople can often accomplish what a committee of experts cannot. They can move quickly and at far lower cost. The committee keeps standards up-to-date much more swiftly, sometimes effecting an important change in as little as 30 days.
One part of the F37 committee — a “task group” working on standards for rocket-deployed whole-airplane parachutes — received an award for creating an approved standard in only six months. In contrast, winning FAA approval for a parachute to be fitted to the government-certified Cessna 150 (an aircraft very similar to LSA of today) took 10 years and cost BRS Parachute more than $2 million. The F37 subgroup did it in six months…with volunteers.
Industry Consensus Standards Work
Under FAA rules for LSA producers, a manufacturer fills out the appropriate application forms and then simply declares that the aircraft meets ASTM standards. When an LSA is ready for delivery, a Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) examines the aircraft in an inspection that obviates the need for the factory to qualify for an FAA Production Certificate (another task that can cost millions of dollars).
Nonetheless, even with the good work of a legion of DARs, how does a consumer know a given aircraft truly meets the ASTM standards? Manufacturers are required to conduct annual internal audits under ASTM standards. To reinforce that requirement, the FAA has also been making factory visits to perform highly-detailed audits of standards compliance, manufacturing quality processes, and adherence to applicable regulations.
Today, most companies take steps to assure full compliance when — and if — the FAA should announce its intention to visit. Companies use internal procedures and help from industry organizations like the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA) to work through the ASTM standards set line-by-line. Consultants versed in the 10-year-old process are now available to assist companies in meeting the standards and keeping the right actions in place to maintain the airworthiness of their aircraft.
What is the proof of their success? The FAA considers the safety of LSA to be “acceptable,” to quote the word often used by agency personnel. Indeed, while some accidents are inevitable due to factors beyond the control of the manufacturer (pilot error and weather, among other reasons), LSA have demonstrated a positive track record.
Here is a key statement: The FAA would not be working with the giants of the aviation industry to create similar standards for Type Certified aircraft if the administration could not point to success among LSA.
Individuals from many countries work on and understand these standards. Why? Isn’t this just a U.S. regulation? LSA sold in America are often imported, so those overseas companies need to meet the standards FAA accepts. More importantly, ASTM standards are increasingly accepted in other countries, meaning a company meeting them once can sell their aircraft in a growing list of other nations. This also saves millions.
F37 is presently composed of more than 200 members typically participating in two to three days of technical meetings twice per year. The committee meets both in America and abroad. Other meetings occur through electronic gatherings facilitated though the Internet. Those hard-working volunteers are guided by knowledgeable ASTM staff members experienced in writing standards. ASTM rules prevent any company or government agency from dominating the actions of the committee.
While maintaining several major standards and creating new ones, the F37 committee pushed ahead with a fresh innovation, building an all-new standard for electric-powered aircraft even before the FAA permits such propulsion. Work continues on a new standard for instrument flying.
The actions of this group of volunteers has inspired the FAA to continue with letting industry guide design requirements. Some might say this is the free market at work.