FAA Rethinking Helicopter Certification Standards

 - March 6, 2013, 4:25 PM

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) held a meeting Tuesday at Heli-Expo to share its experience with the government/industry working group designed to rewrite the certification rules for Part 23 fixed-wing aircraft and encourage the helicopter industry to apply the model for possible revision of the helicopter certification standards under Parts 27 and 29.

The 55-member Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) is making recommendations to the FAA and is co-chaired by GAMA and the FAA. Members include representatives of most major OEMs as well as aircraft regulators from Brazil, Canada, China, Europe and New Zealand. The initiative already has bipartisan political support. Last year, as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to review the aircraft certification approval process, including Part 23 (Section 312).

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address and change regulations impacting the long-term health of our industry on a global basis,” GAMA president Pete Bunce told the meeting.

The FAA has begun the process that could lead to rewriting the certification regulations for normal- and transport-category helicopters certified under Parts 27 and 29. On February 22 the agency issued a request for public comment, due on or before May 23. Specifically, the FAA is seeking comments on whether it should revise the maximum weight and passenger seat capacity for helicopters in both categories and to make airworthiness standards “more efficient and adaptable to future technology.” Currently helicopters with a maximum gross weight greater than 7,000 pounds or with 10 or more passenger seats must be certified under the more stringent transport category, Part 29. Last year the FAA denied Bell Helicopter’s request for a Part 27 exemption to allow its 429 light twin to operate at weights between 7,001 and 7,500 pounds.

Manufacturers Weigh In

Bell spokesman Robert Hastings said the current regulations penalize safety innovations. “If you come up with a great new safety device, but it weighs 12 pounds, under the [maximum weight] regulations, you have a penalty, not a benefit. We think moving away from [a maximum] weight is the right thing to do in terms of innovation and stimulating the industry to think about safety innovation. It benefits all stakeholders. Even the FAA knows that weight standards are arbitrary and they need to be looked at often.” (In 1995 the FAA increased the maximum allowable weight under Part 27 from 6,000 to 7,000 pounds.)

AgustaWestland and Eurocopter are united in their opposition to granting Bell an exemption under Part 27 for existing models, but said they are open to re-examining weight standards on future production helicopters.

“I can understand where they [Bell] are coming from,” said Roberto Garavaglia, senior vice president of marketing for AgustaWestland. “But we are opposed [to the weight exemption]. You cannot change the rules after playing the game.” Garavaglia said any change in the Part 27 and 29 rules had to be “a fair exercise, a level playing field. Regulation cannot be used to alter the competition. If you want to review the rules for future-production helicopters, that’s another thing, or improve safety by putting lightweight recorders on existing helicopters, we would be in favor of that. There are a large number of subjects that could be addressed aside from the weight.”

Eurocopter was no more sympathetic. “No sir,” said David Shepherd, senior director of FAA relations for American Eurocopter when asked whether the FAA should grant Bell an exemption for the 429.

Shepherd said he supported reforms that brought regulations up-to-date with the latest digital cockpit technology, including instrument recalibration standards and other reforms that address items that “have improved over the years, where the regulation does not address those improvements. Some regulations really don’t apply today as design has improved greatly over the years. The [Part 27] regulation was last revised in 1995; that’s a long time ago.” He said Eurocopter planned on submitting formal comments to the FAA directly.