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Meeting Certification Challenges

By By Amy Kluber Photos by Sean Dillon | December 1, 2015


If there’s one thing industry experts at R&WI’s inaugural Rotorcraft Certification Summit could agree on about the certification process, it’s that there are severe inefficiencies.

With new FAA safety mandates in effect or imminent and prospective revisions to Federal Aviation Regulations Part/EASA Certification Specifications 27 and 29 approaching, the summit provided a dialogue among top regulators and those in the industry faced with the task of dealing with current and new regulations.

Rotorcraft Certification Summit panelists included Cool City Avionics’ Pat Moe (left) and the FAA’s Jorge Castillo (middle). Metro Aviation Managing Director Milton Geltz (right), also a panelist, expressed his own certification frustrations during Q&A sessions.
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About 75 individuals, industry executives and regulatory agency decision makers came together Oct. 27 at the Sheraton Dallas/Forth Worth Airport Hotel in Irving, Texas, to participate in discussions and promote ideas for possible improvements to the certification process. Attendees included senior leaders of the FAA Rotorcraft Directorate, representatives of other FAA offices, executives from international aircraft and engine manufacturers, leaders of maintenance and modification companies and other services, and helicopter operators. Also in attendance were representatives of the U.S. Transportation Dept.’s inspector general.

Fourteen invited speakers made up four different panels: “The Most Daunting Certification Challenges Before Us”; “Certification Barriers and Reforms: the International Arena”; “Meeting the Mandates: Steps You Should Be Taking Right Now”; and “Keeping Pace With Technology: How Can We Make Sure the Certification Process Encourages New Technology Rather Than Discourages it?” Joining them were two keynote speakers, NTSB Director of Aviation Safety John DeLisi in the morning and Bill Chiles, chairman emeritus of Bristow Group, during lunch.

FAA Frustrations

CareFlite’s Jim Swartz was among the speakers who addressed the challenges in bringing new rotorcraft technology to market quickly.

A panel from the session “The Most Daunting Certification Challenges Before Us” provided a glimpse into the real-world challenges in certification and discussed how revisions could positively impact their business operations. The panel consisted of end users and potential technology providers, including Jim Swartz, president and CEO at CareFlite; Dave Cripps, deputy director of the Aviation Engineering Directorate with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center; and Steve Wysong, president of independent customizing facility Wysong Enterprises.

Pat Moe, director of flight engineering at Cool City Avionics, kicked off that session with the reminder that since the FAA no longer practices the goal of promoting the aviation industry, its remaining goal of improving aviation safety has become what he said is “an endless quest that succeeds only in never being reached.” The U.S. Congress removed the promotion requirement after a series of aircraft accidents in the 1980s to 1990s.

Moe, who spent 10 years as an FAA test pilot and 39 years in the aircraft certification business, called the FAA’s relationship with applicants “antagonistic.” Moe explained how backlogs continue to grow at every aircraft certification office, and the entire process can be riddled with delays, oftentimes due to the FAA changing requirements in the middle of a project.

Some of the largest delays result from waiting on a response from the FAA at various stages, such as test plan approvals or witnessing tests, Moe said. He recalled occasions when the FAA changed his project requirements before or during type inspection authorization and the subsequent issue papers, which would delay a project even further in the event of a disagreement. Furthermore, rapid turnover of FAA team members would require additional training or re-training of new team members on project details.

Mike Slattery, president of United Rotorcraft, was among the attendees participating in rotorcraft certification discussions.

While frustrating enough, these problems do not only affect applicants. “We have reached the stage where we cannot give our customers any reasonable estimate of how long it will take to complete an STC (supplemental type certificate) project,” said Moe.

Swartz, who’s been at his current post with CareFlite since 2005, echoed that sentiment. He recalled a time when it took only 89 days to receive certification for a project and lamented how that could no longer be done today.

But Swartz added another point of view, positing that fixing such delays might be futile when companies’ interests are in keeping costs low. “Even if improved technology can be approved and certified quickly,” he said, “without financial incentives or a level playing field, it will not be widely adopted.”

More technology use also does not necessarily mean increased safety, Swartz said, citing pilot error in the 2009 Air France Flight 447 and the 1985 China Airlines Flight 006 accidents. “The further removed the pilot is from flying, the greater the risk when something abnormal happens,” he added.

Solutions

One way to address inefficiencies discussed during the summit might be to involve the FAA only minimally. As Moe suggested, “The FAA has to start trusting applicants to do their jobs.” This means putting full responsibility for certification on the applicant, not the FAA. In turn, the agency could be involved only to define the regulations required for individual projects and to perform an audit when they are completed, Moe said.

Perhaps another solution would be to align financial incentives. Swartz noted that current incentives focus on shareholder profits rather than on safety and technology. This makes the speed of implementing technological advancements a “risk in itself,” Swartz said. Both Swartz and FAA Manager of Regulations and Policy Jorge Castillo said those advancements are necessary safety features that improve occupant survivability in the event of a crash.

Improving sluggish response times would involve assigning priorities on individual submissions within a project. During a question-and-answer opportunity in a later session, Metro Aviation Managing Director Milton Geltz called attention to a document that may streamline these wait times for FAA responses. Geltz said the AIR 100 Standard Operating Procedures document “lays out the process and method of how the FAA categorizes and prioritizes certain STC and TC (type certificate) projects.”

This document puts forth an office flow time upon submission of a task (test plan, flight test report, etc.). If following the outlined procedures, each FAA office could designate its own project task response time with a maximum wait of 90 days depending on priority classifications. Currently, Geltz said, wait times take up to a full year.


Bill Chiles Lays Out Safety Challenge

The offshore-support helicopter sector should aim in the next decade to eclipse the safety record of fixed-wing commercial aviation, keynote speaker Bill Chiles told R&WI’s Rotorcraft Certification Summit.

CEO emeritus of Bristow Group and chairman of HeliOffshore, he stressed that the goal was his personal vision. (HeliOffshore  is developing its long-term goals.) Chiles has a track record of setting ambitious safety goals—and achieving them. Under his leadership, Bristow in the mid-2000s launched the Target Zero initiative with a goal of “zero accidents, zero harm to people and zero harm to the environment” for the company and its employees worldwide.


A Silver Lining?

Grievances aside, the FAA might be on track to streamlining processes and thereby fixing a number of these issues.

“I want to make sure you don’t leave this conference without a sense of hope,” said the FAA’s Castillo. “There are a lot of things that [the FAA has] done jointly with our partners in the industry.” Those things are a result of regular meetings with the FAA’s industry partners discussing prominent issues and challenges. For example, the agency meets with organizations such as General Aviation Manufacturers Assn., the Aircraft Electronics Assn. and the Helicopter Assn. International across the U.S. throughout the year.

Currently, Castillo said the FAA’s focus is on reducing fatalities. Almost a week after the summit, the FAA issued a requirement for crash-resistant fuel tanks in helicopters on recommendation by the NTSB. The process of actually implementing the regulation (which would only affect newly-built helicopters) could take several years, however, since the agency still needs to follow a formal rulemaking process in developing a proposal and seeking public comment.

It should be noted that the FAA has attempted similar regulations in the past to no avail. Since its rule only applied to all newly manufactured helicopters (a rarity in an industry that curtails such regulations by manufacturing helicopters under old designs), only a small portion of U.S. helicopters were actually in compliance about a decade later.

Although there are no plans in the books for a total Parts 27 and 29 rewrite, the FAA expects industry recommendations on a potential rewrite in the third quarter of 2017.

In the meantime, R&WI plans to address updates to these issues at next year’s certification summit, which will go beyond certification while exploring additional areas within the safety and training fields.

 

 

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