A version of this article first appeared in our free newsletter, to subscribe click here
Part of my job is advising companies on the best strategy to enter and exit the aircraft certification process. My strategy has always been to do all your work in advance. You scrutinize the advisory materials and policy papers. You examine the recent certified programs and any special conditions applied to those programs, and you complete your design and your compliance plan so the design, your compliance plan and the regulatory requirements are in complete and perfect harmony.
Failure to do this will inevitably add time and expense to the program. Time and money are both things that are in short supply.
There was a communication sent out by the FAA in the last few weeks that makes this approach of doing your work in advance of the official certification program difficult, if not impossible.
It used to be that you could read the regulations and with the direct meaning be sure whether or not your design would comply.
I remember nearly 20 years ago on an unnamed program the CEO of the company called engineering into a special meeting and explained to us that there were grey areas in the regulations. Where we found these grey areas we must favor the company position and not the FAA’s position. None of us were really sure what he meant by this. The whole meeting was hard to take seriously as our DER stood behind the CEO, out of his line of sight shaking his head from side to side and catching each of our eyes in turn.
After we came out of the meeting with the CEO, the FAA delegate in question pulled all of us into a hastily convened meeting and explained to us that there are no grey areas in the regulations and if we thought we had found one we should come to him and he would give us clarity. He then told us that he had talked to the local ACO and they were sending one of the senior staff down to explain to the CEO how aircraft certification worked. We did not hear from the CEO on this subject again.
Of course there can be situations where the project you are working on has some unusual design which causes some real thought as to how it may fit into your compliance program. It is very rare on a conventional aircraft program to find something that is not explicitly covered by the regulations.
That was until the last few years.
The FAA has sent out the following clarification to help with the amendment 64 part 23 regulations:
It includes this paragraph:
“However, for means of compliance identified in the following list, Aircraft Type Code compliance matrix tables, which define applicability of the individual requirements of given standards, are not accepted in any ASTM F44 standard. Due to errors identified in the Aircraft Type Code compliance matrix tables, applicability of individual requirements of standards must be established with the Small Airplane Standards Branch.”
The list that follows has some specific substitutions but seems to encompass almost all of the regulations.
That should strike fear into the heart of anyone with any aircraft certification experience. You cannot trust the clear direct interpretation of the working of the regulations and the ASTM F44 set of standards. Interpretation and understanding of the requirements can only be trusted if they are discussed directly with the FAA.
The question we have to resolve now is: Are the regulations and ‘advisory standards’ (or whatever the ASTM documentation is) fit for purpose?
I think we can put aside the question of whether the recent change to the regulations is an improvement that will ease the path through certification. The questions we have to wrestle with now are:
Is it possible/practical to certify with the combination of the regulations and the ASTM mandatory/non mandatory commercial standards?
How close a relationship do you have to have with the FAA to get the attention you require to navigate through the patchwork of regulations, ASTM standards, legacy advisory circulars and policy letters?
These are serious questions for all companies in the field, but especially for aerospace startup ventures. If you mis-plan and fail to correctly conduct your certification program that can be the end of not only the program, but the company itself.
Considering the situation described earlier of the CEO addressing engineering in the meeting – now he would be completely correct. The combination of the new regulations and the pay to play ASTM standards have created 50 shades of certification grey.
Where do we go from here?