By PETE BUNCE
What can general aviation learn from NASCAR? When it comes to adopting new safety technology, quite a bit.
Following the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR took a serious look at the safety of the sport. The racing group took a broad approach to better protecting occupants in the event of an accident by properly restraining the driver, using energy-absorbing materials, and creating survivable volume inside the car. As a result, drivers now regularly walk away from crashes at very high speeds and conduct television interviews immediately afterward.
The general aviation industry has been doing its own research and paying attention to what the auto racing industry is doing. Unfortunately, the current regulatory structure governing the design of most general aviation airplanes doesn’t easily allow similar innovative, safety-enhancing products and technologies to come to market.
That may be about to change, however.
In March, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to update the regulations governing small airplanes, and gave the public 60 days to comment. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) believes this proposal — which we support overall — is an important step forward to improve general aviation safety and revive the light end of the airplane market. Let me explain.
Our industry is rapidly changing — but the rules governing certification of small airplanes were put into place decades ago and simply haven’t kept pace with technology. The existing regulations also aren’t flexible enough to support the innovative ideas manufacturers are developing today and will create in years to come.
Recognizing this challenge, in 2011 the FAA chartered the Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which GAMA’s Greg Bowles co-chaired.
Over 18 months, 150 government and industry experts from around the world carefully assessed how the outdated requirements affected both the initial certification and modification processes for small airplanes.
They then suggested setting performance-based design requirements rather than prescriptive, technology-dependent rules that rely on assumptions, such as weight and propulsion type.
These recommendations would streamline the regulatory process — lowering the costs of certifying a new product — and give manufacturers needed flexibility by allowing them to comply with the rules through consensus-based standards.
In short, the ARC’s goal was to double safety benefits at half the certification costs to government and industry.
The ARC’s work was greeted favorably by leaders in Washington, D.C.
In May 2013, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the Small Airplane Revitalization Act (SARA) to set a date — Dec. 15, 2015 — to implement its recommendations. By November 2013, both chambers passed the bill unanimously — an almost unheard-of time period for a substantial piece of legislation. The day before Thanksgiving, President Obama signed SARA into law.
Fast forward more than two years, and — with continued interest from Congress and the aviation community — the FAA could announce the final rule by the end of this year.
General aviation manufacturers are on the cusp of seeing real change that will allow our industry to better deploy new technologies and facilitate future innovations, increasing safety in the skies and creating new opportunities for those who design and build aircraft, just as NASCAR has done with cars.
If these new products excite more people about flying, manufacturers would also likely be able to add jobs, stimulating the U.S. economy.
One example is electric and hybrid propulsion aircraft. In February, GAMA welcomed our very first associate members, eight companies that are developing this cutting-edge technology. Although the current regulations do not support electric propulsion, these manufacturers will be able to get their aircraft certified under the new rules.
The same current regulations that govern new production also restrict modifications to existing aircraft. GAMA is equally excited that the reform of Part 23 will enable innovative alterations that add safety and utility in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
The new rules will allow FAA to be nimble enough to respond to technologies as they become available, and customers will have access to the latest products with enhanced safety at a lower cost. It’s a win-win-win for industry, government, and consumers.
The rules won’t just affect manufacturers in the United States, either. SARA specifically sought to ensure global harmonization so that manufacturers don’t have to design different products for different countries.
GAMA has also been working actively in Europe as leaders there reorganize their rules for small aircraft. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2015, with the final CS-23 rule expected later this year. Regulatory agencies in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, and New Zealand are also participating in this initiative.
Given how quickly the aviation industry is changing, it’s time for new and flexible rules that govern how small airplanes are certified. The implementation of the ARC’s recommendations and those developed by EASA promise to foster a new spirit of innovation for general aviation manufacturers, a more efficient and effective certification process for regulators and industry, and greater safety at a lower cost for the public.
What a bright future general aviation has ahead of it.