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FAA to LSA Industry: Time for Adult Supervision

As a supporter of the light sport effort, and as someone who flies an LSA (the Sportcruiser), the recent audit report from the FAA on the LSA manufacturing industry should set off alarm bells.   You can find the report on avweb’s website here.

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Dan Johnson, chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, says the report is “tough love’– but we think it’s a bit more ominous than that.

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The FAA audited 30 LSA facilities to determine if they are complying with ASTM. standards.  For those not familiar with how light sport aircraft are marketed and sold, here’s a brief overview.  The FAA created the LSA sector to foster technological developments and bring aircraft to market without the costs associated with government certification.  As such, aircraft that meet LSA standards for weight, size, and speed can be ’self-certified’ by the manufacturer, providing they meet the standards set forth by the ASTM.  (ASTM is an independent group that industries use to set standards for products.)  If the aircraft meets the standard, it can then be sold to the American public without government certifications.  This has no doubt lead to lower cost products, but now there’s a question as to whether it’s also lead to lower-quality products.

The FAA made this astonishing determination:  Most of the thirty facilities audited could not establish that the airplanes met the standards.  Further, the manufacturers have failed to implement basic internal controls, do not fully understand FAA regulations, and lack communication procedures to improve processes.  The report concludes that the FAA needs to increase its oversight of the industry.

The history of industry self-regulation is full of failures (read Gulf oil disaster) and the LSA sector needs to proactively address these concerns.  Pilots and passengers get into aircraft believing that some over-lord has blessed the machine.  With the exception of homebuilt aircraft (which have a shaky track record), we expect ‘certified’ airplanes to perform to certain standards.  Wings don’t fall off often, but no one is happy when they do.

So far, the FAA and the NTSB have both expressed pleasure with the safety record of LSAs.  But because of the few planes flying, that record does not yet speak for itself.  Let’s be clear:  one or two high-profile LSA accidents that involve structural failure will lead to significant regulation.  Especially if ‘non-pilots’ are hurt.

These pages are not advocating increased regulations or, argh, the end of LSA self-certification.  Just the opposite.  We want LSA’s to succeed without a government crackdown.  But the industry needs to immediately answer the FAA’s concerns.  For each point the audit report raises, we’d like to see each manufacturer provide a response– either refuting the accusation or an explanation of how it will do better.   Have they done that yet?

If the LSA industry cannot instill it’s own adult supervision, we all know the government will do it for it.

5 Responses to “FAA to LSA Industry: Time for Adult Supervision”

  1. Phil Solomon Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    I am the CEO of Tecnam North America (www.tecnam.net)so definitely have an interest in how this debate goes. Andrew highlights a number of issues that should rightly be of concern to users and the industry alike. It is in everyone's interest to have rules that are sensible, practical and complied with. For the most part, the LSA regulations meet these criteria remarkably well. As with all such rules we should remember the saying, "trust but verify". Nobody in the industry should resent the existence of strong internal audits that are already required nor be afraid of the possibility of external review. Where I differ with Andrew is that I would not conduct a public witch hunt with each manufacturer "refuting the accusation". Firstly, only US manufacturers had their plants audited so consequentloy most of the audits were of the distribution chain. Important, but not necessarily a representative picture of the whole chain of custody for the industry. The FAA is providing a confidential report to each participant and it is important that the key findings are followed up. People should also be aware that the FAA was also very complimentary of the reactions they got from the people being audited. Non compliance was felt to be principally from a lack of understanding rather than any deliberate intent to flout the rules. Education and rule clarification should be the ultimate goal with a good audit process to provide people with "timely reminders".

    We also need to be careful what we wish for. If we go down the road of turning Light Sport aircraft into Part 23 certified aircraft, but without the privileges, then we will kill innovation and increase prices dramatically. Likewise, if we over control then we will automatically kill off all the smaller companies and take with it a lot of the potential for real progress. The whole LSA revolution is being copied worldwide and represents an amazing partnership between the regulators and regulated that needs to be encouraged and nurtured.

    Like most people of my age I was brought up on Pipers, Cessnas and Beech and with the best will in the world and with huge respect for their achievements it would be a struggle to describe their products as either cutting edge or state of the art when compared with, for example, what Cirrus brought to the table. Do we really want the "new begining" to be totally dominated by the legacy players?

    The improvement plans being enacted by the industry in cooperation with the FAA are measured, proportionate and will retain a vibrant industry. Audits are critical in this process and persistent failures to meet standards have to engender consequences in order to retain public confidence in our products.

  2. Finbar Sheehy Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I have a few reactions to the FAA audit too, as a pilot who flies LSA (Tecnam Sierra, Tecnam Bravo and the SportCruiser) and as a potential buyer.

    1. What do you mean, NOBODY AUDITS THE COMPLIANCE? That's INSANE! (Pardon the shouting.) It doesn't have to be (probably shouldn't be) the FAA, but somebody should. There are already organizations who do this kind of thing in industrial companies - people audit ISO compliance, for example. LAMA has tried to set up a compliance program, but a quick glance at their web site suggests they've gotten next-to-nowhere with it (I can't find any list of aircraft that "carry the LAMA label" for example). I really don't want to fly an airplane that doesn't have a compliance certificate, unless it's got a fairly big organization behind it. That means Cessna, Piper, GE or Apple. Maybe Tecnam or Flight Design, but only maybe. I can't believe the other reputable manufacturers aren't demanding certification by some 3rd party and then shouting about it from the rooftops when it comes to selling their aircraft. Otherwise, their good efforts to comply just add expense and make them less competitive than someone who just skips that step.
    2. FAA doesn't regulate hang gliders, to this day, despite the carnage that occurred in the 1970s. But today the industry is regulated nevertheless, by an agency of the manufacturers' own creation - HGMA. Why? Because they killed too many people in the 1970s, and they had to have some way to stop people competing on cost by skipping safety. Today, hang gliders have a remarkably good safety record, and yet hang gliding is seen as a daredevil activity because the reputation from the 1970s lives on (hang gliding is about as risky as recreational use of motorcycles - not something that quite reaches "daredevil" status). I don't want to see a) the FAA step in and shut down all the innovation, nor b) lots of dead bodies and a reputation that lives on for 40 years.
    3. I don't want to buy an LSA that hasn't been audited for compliance with both ASTM and LSA rules. What will happen to my expensive purchase if the FAA subsequently decides it was out of compliance? Will I own a very expensive piece of aviation artwork?
    4. I was pleased to see Phil Solomon's response up above - but, Phil, who audits your ASTM/LSA compliance? And if someone does, why isn't that fact highly visible on your web site so that potential customers a) feel more confident in your products and b) ask your competitors why they aren't advertising something similar? If you don't want the innovation shut down (and I believe you don't), please get out in front of the FAA and start promoting industry-based audits.

    Thanks.

  3. Finbar Sheehy Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    P.S.

    Phil, I think the goal should be to try to replace Part 23 with something derived from the LSA experience, so that we can have innovation and a bit more competition for the old Cessna/Piper warhorses.

    For that to happen, the LSA experience needs to be a success!

  4. Parents are getting so laxs today isnt not even funny. Thanks for the message. I support the movement

  5. Phil Solomon Says:
    July 31st, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Finbar has made some really points and is right to be somewhat concerned. Tecnam is in an unusual position because the models it produces are certified in many other countries as well as qualifying as Light Sport aircraft in the USA, so they are already subject to multiple compliance audits under various standards including ISO9001 (see http://www.tecnam.com/en-GB/company/certification.aspx).
    Tecnam North America, as the exclusive importer, is required by the factory to operate to rigorous standards for the final re-assembly, testing and certification by an independent DAR of the aircraft we import. When the audit standards have been defined we will submit to them as well.
    People should understand that if the proposed controls had been in place at the start of the Light Sport movement there would have been almost no new entrants or substantial innovation brought to the market and we would be dealing with the same limited gene pool that has dominated FAR23 aircraft for the last fifty or sixty years. This said, the market has reached the point where innovation has been allowed to flourish and we need to review the degree to which we can continue to allow minimal supervision and risk losing the public’s trust in our products.
    It is almost certain that the enactment of tighter controls will lead to the exit of many smaller manufacturers who cannot afford the costs of proving compliance so consumer choice will inevitably be reduced.
    The current review of FAR23 is both welcome and overdue and is an opportunity to extend some of the best parts of the Light Sport experience to other aircraft and perhaps help innovation flourish there as well as lead to more affordable prices.
    I am sure that other people will express views that are in opposition to mine and that is to be encouraged and welcomed in a great democracy. I hope only to encourage debate.
    Phil Solomon
    CEO – Tecnam North America

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