FAA To Allow 135, 121 Pilot Updating of Nav Databases

 - December 1, 2011, 2:20 PM
The debate about whether commercial pilots update databases might be moot, as services such as Rockwell Collins’s Ascend automate the process.

The FAA is seeking comments on a proposed rule change that will allow pilots flying under commercial operating regulations to update navigation system databases, an action currently allowed only for Part 91 pilots. Comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) are due December 19. (See Docket No. FAA–2011–0763 at www.regulation.gov.)

Under the current Part 43 rules, navigation and terrain database updating is classified as preventive maintenance: “Updating self-contained, front instrument panel-mounted air traffic control (ATC) navigational software databases (excluding those of automatic flight control systems, transponders, and microwave-frequency distance measuring equipment [DME]) provided no disassembly of the unit is required and pertinent instructions are provided.”

Simpler Systems Alleviate Safety Concerns

While pilots operating under Part 91 are permitted to update nav and terrain databases (and perform any kind of preventive maintenance), the FAA does not extend similar latitude to charter and airline pilots. According to FAR 43.3 (g), “Except for holders of a sport pilot certificate, the holder of a pilot certificate issued under Part 61 may perform preventive maintenance on any aircraft owned or operated by that pilot which is not used under Part 121, 129, or 135 of this chapter.”

Thus, a charter or airline operator could have an aircraft stuck if its database expired away from home base without a local mechanic or FAA-approved repair station available and qualified to perform the update.

If the NPRM becomes law, the FAA would allow pilots to update a “self-contained, front-instrument panel-mounted and pedestal-mounted air traffic control (ATC) navigational system database.” According to the FAA, “The effect of this revision would be to ensure that pilots using specified navigation equipment have the most current and accurate navigational data and thereby increase aviation safety.”

Older equipment was more difficult to update, hence the original requirement, which the NPRM seeks to change, the FAA noted. “The FAA established the requirement to have qualified personnel update nav-system databases to address the complexity of older systems, for which a person needed training and specialized equipment and access to installed equipment to perform the update. Updating newer nav systems is now a simple procedure that does not require special training or specialized equipment. Consequently, the safety concerns that existed when the current regulations were promulgated are no longer valid.”

The new rule would not remove the requirement that whoever updates the nav database must make an entry in the aircraft’s documents, and there will be other requirements:

(1) No disassembly of the unit is required;

(2) The pilot has written procedures available to perform and evaluate the accomplishment of the task; and

(3) The database is contained in a field-loadable configuration and imaged on a medium, such as a compact disc read-only memory (CD-ROM), synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) or other nonvolatile memory that contains database files that are non-corruptible upon loading, and where integrity of the load can be assured and verified by the pilot upon completing the loading sequences.

(4) Records of when such database uploads have occurred, the revision number of the software, and who performed the upload must be maintained.

(5) The data to be uploaded must not contain system operating software revisions.

Proposed Rule Gets User Approval

The rule change is generally welcomed by organizations such as the National Air Transportation Association, which has been lobbying for regulatory relief. NATA explained in a regulatory report issued to its members, “NATA is pleased that the FAA has begun this rulemaking project. However, NATA believes that the FAA has not fully addressed the issue. Numerous aircraft flight management systems that use a data loader to update their navigational databases are not included in this proposed rule. NATA will provide detailed comments to the FAA to help ensure that this proposed rulemaking project eliminates the burdens of outdated regulations on the industry.”

The 21 comments submitted to the docket through the end of October were overwhelmingly supportive of the FAA’s proposal. One commenter wrote, “Requiring a certified mechanic to load these simple database updates is a burdensome requirement. The irony of the current regulation is that a mechanic with no experience with the avionics is approved to load the database, but the pilot who operates the avionics and has good working knowledge of the system is assumed to be unqualified to load a database. In many cases, I’ve seen the pilot coaching the mechanic on how to update the database because the pilot is the ‘expert’ on the avionics equipment. The cost and trouble of calling in a mechanic every 28 days to update a navigation database, for example, are definite disincentives to having the latest database.”

Another commenter noted: “Pilots are already trusted, and required, to ensure that other navigational tools such as aeronautical charts and instrument approach plates are current and unexpired. Allowing a pilot to personally update the nav-system is much akin to these other responsibilities and suggests that pilots are more than capable of handling this additional task without additional safety risk.”

The wording of the NPRM would remove database updating from the list of preventive maintenance items. The new paragraph (k) added to 43.3 thus would add a new maintenance item, albeit one that pilots are allowed to perform. One commenter suggested, “The FAA should just remove nav database updates from the preventive maintenance list and state in the preamble that nav updates are considered a pilot preflight duty. Therefore it is treated like fuel servicing, lav servicing and so on, where no log entry is required. If a pilot can monitor and get the correct fuel load he can ensure his data on his navigation unit is up to date. I would treat this as a servicing item and remove from Part 43 all together.”

All of this might end up being moot, technologically, because database updates are becoming automated. For example, Rockwell Collins’s Ascend Aircraft Information service can automatically perform database updates. Pilots can monitor the updates via a Rockwell Collins website to verify that onboard databases have been updated, or Rockwell Collins will send an email verification.