Getting the Rules Right

By By James T. McKenna | August 1, 2015
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By James T. McKenna

The rules and procedures that the FAA uses to approve rotorcraft and new equipment that improves their safety and utility need overhauling.

This fact is not news to many readers. Those of you who operate helicopters, build them, modify and complete them and support them—which is to say most of you—know this all too well. You deal again and again with the effects of these certification shortcomings.


Modified aircraft are kept out of service for weeks or months at a time because of disputes or confusion over the standards and procedures to be used in approving the changes they underwent.

Plans for system or component upgrades are kept in the drawer because the timeline for gaining their certification is so long and uncertain that no reasonable business person would invest in their development. The return on investment for such development could prove non-existent.

Manufacturers and modification shops forgo improvements that would enhance the safety of a helicopter because the relatively minor changes would require the entire aircraft element—such as a fuel system—to be re-certified under more stringent amendments of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The rules for certification of new helicopters remain based largely on aircraft weight and number of passengers. This ignores that fact that technological advances, particularly in avionics, can make a Part 27 helicopter every bit as sophisticated as a Part 29 one.

The ill effects of the certification shortcomings are, in fact, too numerous to list here. As I said, the shortcomings and their effects are hardly news. But since I returned to this magazine, I have heard a great deal about them.

What is clear, beyond the extent and effects of these flaws, is their urgency. Aeromedical programs and Part 135 operators face mandates to install new equipment—terrain awareness and warning systems, radar altimeters, flight data monitoring—in the next few years. All helicopter operators currently are required to have Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast devices on their aircraft in less than five years. It is unclear how the industry and FAA will meet those deadlines, let alone meet them and make other improvements to keep helicopters up to date and productive.

That has led Publisher Randy Jones and I to conclude that the time is right for industry and the FAA to sit down for a focused discussion of the broad range of certification challenges and the best means of addressing them. The Rotorcraft Certification Summit, scheduled for Oct. 27 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, will present the forum to begin that discussion. You can learn more about the summit at http://www.rotorcraftsummit.com/.

A number of efforts are underway to address certification shortcomings. Prodded since 2012 by Congress, the FAA has been working to streamline its certification processes, including those used to issue the supplemental type certificates on which aircraft modifications and upgrades depend. Also, U.S. and European trade associations have begun work to develop industry consensus on where and how Parts 27 and 29 and their European and Canadian counterparts need to be changed. They propose to build on the success of the recent effort to reform Part 23 certification rules for small airplanes; those changes should start going into effect in the next year.

There is a sense in the industry that the effort to rewrite Parts 27 and 29 is driven by Bell Helicopter, a result of its difficulty in getting weight exemptions for its 429 from the FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency. But a rewrite is a protracted effort; the Part 23 rewrite effort began in 2009 or so. Now keep in mind that I worked for Bell for a short time just when the 429 weight problem was hurting early sales. But it is unclear to me how a rewrite would benefit near-term 429 sales.

The evidence is that today’s certification shortcomings affect more than Bell. When the FAA asked in 2013 for thoughts on what about Parts 27/29 should be changed, one of Eurocopter’s top engineers replied that today’s certification standards haven’t kept up with technology and, furthermore, they can’t. This engineer said such standards should be “performance based,” laying out functional objectives but leaving the accepted means of meeting those objectives to advisory material (which can be revised and updated more promptly). That, by the way, is just the approach EASA proposes for its Part 23 revisions.

Consider, too, that AgustaWestland is preparing to gain certification of and introduce the AW609 into air traffic systems around the world whose design of airspace and ATC procedures didn’t envision a civil tiltrotor and probably can’t accommodate one very well.

Certification issues clearly are a concern for the entire rotorcraft industry.

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