The Transformation of Certification Adopting Consensus Standards for Light-Sport Aircraft

--by Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing

“I look for the consensus because the consensus drives the policy into new places.” — Catherine Ashton.

Catherine Ashton’s quote speaks directly to the spirit of the time — 2002 — when the FAA made the decision to use industry-developed consensus standards for the design, manufacture, airworthiness certification, and maintenance of a new, and emerging category of light-sport aircraft.

Back then, manufacturers of single-seat, lightweight ultralight vehicles were creating larger, heavier, and faster two-seater ultralights at a rapid pace. With two seats and affordable, innovative designs, these heavy ultralights were all the rage, and consumers were clamoring to buy and fly these exciting creations that required neither aircraft nor pilot certifications.

But these new ultralights were caught between two worlds; they were too heavy to operate as ultralight vehicles under part 103 (often referred to as “fat ultralights”) and impractical to certify under part 23. Not only was part 23 certification impractical for the fixed wing designs, vehicles such as powered parachutes, weight-shift control, and gyroplanes were not airplanes as defined by part 1, and were therefore ineligible for certification under part 23. In effect, they were not airworthy for sport or recreational flight.

The Un-Certified Dimension

There were no standards in place to regulate the design and manufacturing of these “fat-ultralights,” and pilots were flying them without any training, certification, or maintenance safeguards to follow. Coupled with an increasing number of accidents and incidents, the FAA faced a growing safety concern.

To borrow from Catherine Ashton’s quote — it was time to drive the policy into new places!

The New Location for Certification

Enter consensus standards. In 2004, the FAA published a new rule that created the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category. This rule not only created a new classification for what were previously considered heavy ultralights, but it also introduced, for the very first time, the use of industry-developed consensus standards acceptable to the FAA to address aircraft design, production, airworthiness, and maintenance for Special (S-LSA), and Experimental (E-LSA) kit built aircraft.

Note: Amateur-built aircraft, and amateur-builts that meet the definition of an LSA, do not require compliance with consensus standards. Instead, amateur-built aircraft receive experimental airworthiness certificates. E-LSA kit built aircraft are different in that they are only produced to the standard, but they must be assembled by the builder according to the assembly instructions. E-LSA kit-builts also cannot be used for compensation or hire (including flight training), because to qualify for an experimental certificate, there must first have been an S-LSA version of that same make and model.

The FAA moved to the use of consensus standards not only to leverage existing industry experience, but also to provide a less costly and less restrictive means for certification, increase the level of safety of these aircraft, close gaps in previous regulations, and create a means to accommodate new aircraft designs.

Applying consensus standards to the process creates flexibility, improves process efficiency, reduces cost for the manufacturer and consumer, and enhances safety. In fact, some would argue that the success of the LSA rule inspired the recent re-write of part 23 to use consensus standards as well.

Sounds great, right? But what exactly are these consensus standards? How do they work? Do they really save money? And how does their use enhance safety?

A Sense of Consensus

In a nutshell, industry-developed consensus standards set the guidelines for a product. They’ve been around for a long time, and are widely used today in almost all U.S. industries.

If you’ve ever owned a mechanical tool set with SAE and metric tools, then you’re already familiar with consensus standards. SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers), develops technical standards for tools, equipment, and even horsepower ratings for the automotive industry.

In the aviation industry, Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mandated the use of consensus standards. OMB Circular A-119 directed agencies “to use voluntary consensus standards, in lieu of government-unique standards, … to eliminate the government’s cost in developing standards, to decrease the cost of goods, and to promote efficiency and economic competition through the harmonization of standards.”

To facilitate the development of standards for S-LSA and E-LSA kit aircraft, the industry chose ASTM International (formerly, American Society for Testing and Materials), a not-for-profit organization that is one of the largest voluntary standards developing organizations in the world.

The Creation of Consensus

ASTM serves as a forum for technical committees that develop and maintain standards. The technical committees are comprised of experts and industry members that work together on a consensus basis to develop these standards.

Technical Committee F37 on Light-Sport Aircraft established the first set of consensus standards for the 2004 LSA rule. Today, we recognize the F37 Committee as the standards developing body for S-LSA and E-LSA kit aircraft. Approximately 175 volunteers, including stakeholders, FAA representatives, and consumers meet twice a year to develop and maintain standards in design, performance, quality acceptance testing, and safety monitoring.

A Standard is Born

The committee reviews the proposed standards it develops and then takes a vote for approval. Any negative votes require written settlement, with final approval of all draft standards by consensus, i.e., general agreement. And, voila! A new or revised set of standards is created and ready for publishing.

To Accept or Not

Despite the committee’s consensus, and approval by the standards body, these approved consensus standards are not ready for use by the light-sport aircraft industry for airworthiness certification. In fact, all ASTM-approved consensus standards are voluntary. It’s up to the FAA to make the final decision to accept or not accept the approved standards for airworthiness certification of light-sport aircraft. Here’s how that works.

The F37 Committee submits all the approved, new, and revised LSA consensus standards to FAA subject matter experts for review.

Whenever a new consensus standard comes out that applies to LSA, or there’s a revision to an existing standard, the FAA has to review it. The FAA has the option to accept, or not accept, any ASTM approved consensus standard received from the F37 Committee.

Additionally, the FAA does not approve consensus standards. They are accepted or not accepted. Here’s why.

If you look at the difference between aircraft that are designed under FAA type certificates (TCs) and production certificates (PCs), and LSAs, the answer is clear. Aircraft type-certificated to part 23 must meet FAA-specific design and testing requirements. These aircraft must then meet FAA-specific quality and production requirements under part 21 to be eligible for airworthiness certification. Since they must comply with these FAA regulations, they are FAA-approved aircraft. LSAs, on the other hand, are built to industry-consensus standards. LSAs are eligible for an airworthiness certificate based on the manufacturer’s statement of compliance to industry standards, without the FAA’s issuance of a TC and PC. Without FAA-specific requirements for issuance of TCs and PCs for LSAs, the FAA will only accept, and not approve, the industry-specific standards.

A Standard is Adopted

The FAA identifies the FAA-accepted consensus standards in the Federal Register by an FAA notice of availability (NOA). The NOA includes the effective date for the new or revised standards to be used for new manufactured aircraft and the end date for using the existing ones. It also includes a 30-day request for comments from the public. Any comments received are coordinated with the F37 Committee for consideration in future standards revisions. The FAA adopts the new and revised standards as acceptable for airworthiness certification and mandatory for manufacturers to follow.

Consensus Standards in Action

An LSA manufacturer must use the current, FAA-accepted consensus standards to design and manufacture its new aircraft. Existing aircraft are maintained to the consensus standards effective on their date of manufacture. To see a list of the latest FAA-accepted standards, and information on previously accepted standards, visit faa.gov/aircraft/gen_av/light_sport.

Manufacturers are responsible for their finished products and are required to sign a statement of compliance for each LSA aircraft and kit they produce. This statement of compliance designates that the aircraft complies with all FAA-accepted, and applicable LSA standards. FAA Designated Airworthiness Representatives inspect the aircraft to verify it is in a condition for safe operation and that the manufacturer certifies that it does in fact meet the standards.

To comply with the regulations, LSA manufacturers must: design the aircraft to meet the consensus standard; document the required maintenance and inspection procedures along with the aircraft’s flight training supplement; maintain a quality assurance system that meets the consensus standard; and have a process in place to monitor and correct safety-of-flight issues. Ultimately, the certification and continuing airworthiness of an LSA aircraft is the manufacturer’s responsibility.

Consensus Standards and You

Airworthiness certification of LSAs by consensus standards provides a number of benefits for the flying public. A major benefit is the cost savings passed along to the consumer. Airworthiness certification is less costly and less restrictive than the FAA-standard airworthiness process, providing LSA manufacturers greater flexibility with their designs and more freedom to develop cost-effective technologies. In addition, manufacturers can test the compliance of their products against these standards themselves, which saves money and time.

Another plus is that as the LSA industry continues to develop new designs and models, airworthiness certification by consensus provides living guidance that embraces change and allows manufacturers to bring new products to the market much faster. That’s great news for the LSA enthusiast.

Best of all, with consensus standards new safety-enhancing technology is cheaper to introduce, and it gets to market faster. That makes LSAs safer for you, and for everyone in the airspace.

Learn More

Jennifer Caron is an assistant editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She is a certified technical writer-editor in aviation safety and flight standards.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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