Fans of American general aviation are celebrating a landmark victory for the preservation and accessibility of historic aircraft data as the recently passed FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act 2012 (HR 658) makes its way to the White House for President Obama’s signature. The cause for celebration is a small, but significant amendment that requires the FAA to protect aircraft technical drawings and other design data from the dawn of civil aviation in the United States.
The amendment, incorporated into the overall FAA Reauthorization Bill, mandates the preservation of vintage aircraft design data for 1,257 different makes and models of aircraft built in the United States from March 1927 through November 1939. It has been labeled “The Herrick Amendment” by the bill’s primary sponsor, Congressman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) after aviation preservationist and Aviation Foundation of American President Greg Herrick of Minneapolis, Minn.
This amendment also removes the claim of “trade secret” status to vintage aircraft drawings and grants access through a Freedom of Information Act request to anyone who wishes to examine or copy the drawings for non-commercial purposes. In addition, it relieves surviving holders of the Approved Type Certificate from liability for use of the data.
“Beginning with the Wright brothers, the United States has led the way for aviation and these files chronicle the development of our aircraft industry. They document the very fabric of American innovation,” said Herrick. “The accessibility and preservation of these files ensures an irreplaceable resource for present and future generations. It also allows vintage aircraft owners to maintain the continued safe operation of aircraft that are still flying.”
The U.S. government mandated aircraft manufacturers submit design data to receive approval to build an aircraft for public use. The data included technical blueprints depicting the design, materials, components, dimensions and geometry of the aircraft, in addition to engineering analysis and test data. After submission and approval, manufacturers received an “Approved Type Certificate” (ATC), or a “Group 2” approval which were to be held for future reference and comparison.
Today, fewer than half-a-dozen of these aircraft are still being manufactured and very few of the original manufacturers are still in business, according to foundation officials. Yet, thousands of the aircraft still exist in private collections and continue to be restored, maintained and flown.
Regrettably, over time much of this technical data became scattered through various government offices and storage facilities. Locating this data for purposes of restoration, repair or continued airworthiness inspections for a given model of aircraft grew increasingly problematic, officials note. In addition, the FAA adopted a policy that made obtaining the data very difficult.
In 1997, Herrick requested the drawings for the tail of a 1937 tube-and-fabric Fairchild aircraft. Access was denied on the basis that the design contained “trade secrets” of the original manufacturer. A lawsuit was filed and iterations of the effort led the case 15 years later to the United States Supreme Court where in a unanimous decision the case was remanded to the lower court and Herrick finally obtained copies of the drawings. It was this experience the led Herrick to champion the amendment.
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