Project WUCAA - Wake Up CAA!
the CAA finally ‘reawakens’ to NTCAs for Training
General Aviation (GA) as we know it is in a crisis. The industry has been its own worst enemy as it has allowed itself to be both litigated and then regulated almost out of existence.
Yet serene above the travails of the GA industry, the airline industry has continued to grow steadily and has a voracious appetite for pilots, which the stunted GA industry is increasingly struggling to provide. The net result is that the airlines now find themselves facing a massive pilot shortage. The big problem is that pilot training is trapped between the double squeeze of costs and over regulation.
The good news is that finally something is being done about this problem. The South African CAA has had a sudden change of heart and is now in favour of making training cheaper and better. It seems like this time the CAA has finally woken up.
THE BACKGROUND TO THE PROBLEM
The GA industry of today is an emaciated wreck compared to the heydays of the 1970s and 80s, when the manufacturers could hardly keep up with the demand for aircraft. Now the original Big 3 plane builders – Cessna Piper and Beech – are only building single engine pistons when they receive orders, and it looks like Cessna may stop entirely. With volumes so small, the margins are thin, and I get the feeling they would rather not build little planes anymore.
The chief culprit for the initial industry collapse in the 1980s was the USA’s appalling tort legal system, where ambulance chasing lawyers could take on cases on a contingency fee – on a ‘no win no pay’ basis. When a light plane crashed, these lawyers went after the party with the deepest pockets – usually the plane builder and its insurer. With a jury system to feel sorry for the plaintive, ludicrous awards were being made, and these came through to the bottom line in the form of huge price increases for light planes – just to cover the costs of product liability insurance. In some cases the cost of this insurance became more than two thirds of the price paid by the new plane buyer.
The industry all but died on its feet, and from 1984 to 1993 almost no piston singles were built by the big American GA manufacturers. Belatedly, the lawmakers addressed the problem with the General Aviation Revitalisation Act which limited the manufacturers’ liability to 18 years from date of manufacture. Cessna, Piper and Beech started building piston singles again, but in far fewer numbers, and many of the best designs, such as the Cessna 210, have been permanently lost.
But liability insurance for the 18 years’ exposure still needed to be paid, and it further depressed the demand for new aircraft. As volumes fell, the manufacturers perversely put their prices up – and so sales fell still further.
But you can’t keep people with a passion to fly on the ground, so there was a massive upsurge in Experimental Aircraft activity. As Peter Garrison describes in his column this month, the number of experimental designs exploded, and Oshkosh soon became the biggest airshow in the world. Many of the designs were one-offs, but a few survived and became mainstream. And because the free market abhors a vacuum, soon professional builders sprang up who were offering kits – and eventually even to build the whole plane.
For years the authorities disliked this arrangement. These were, after all, non-type certified aircraft (NTCA) which had not undergone the rigours – and huge expense – of full certification testing. But gradually a new reality began to sink into the minds of the regulators. The average age of the GA fleet was already more than 30 years old, and it was getting older. The designs and equipment were fixed in time due to the – you guessed it – costs and risks of certifying new designs and equipment. It was as though the GA industry was trapped driving 1950s cars.
The new NTCA designs are cheaper to buy and fly, and they have better equipment, such as modern glass instrument panels. This was a key consideration – it made little sense to train pilots on 40-year-old aircraft with big round ‘steam gauges’ when they would be flying modern aircraft with glass cockpits. And yes, modern and younger aircraft are safer than worn-out 40-year-old ‘hacks’ that suffer endless cracking and metal fatigue. Even in the demanding realm of amateur weekend-warrior pilots there is little if any evidence to show that NTCAs are any more dangerous than production-built type certified planes.
Recognising this back in 2006, the South African CAA under Colin Jordaan became one of the world leaders when it approved NTCAs for flight training. The then CAA appreciated what the New Zealanders identified as the unassailable proposition of NTCAs being ‘double the safety at half the cost’. But over the years since then, the CAA has progressively lost its earlier vision and courage and has been trying to get NTCAs prohibited for training. As a side note, this has had the absurd consequence that pilots were not able to get conversions onto their own NTCAs. The training industry has had to fight long and hard to stop this erosion of common sense.
Earlier this year, the battle was reaching a climax, when all of a sudden the CAA capitulated. What caused this abrupt change of heart?
The simple truth is that the SACAA is slavish in its following of ICAO standards, and it was only when ICAO sat up and recognised the value of NTCAs in training that the CAA suddenly gave up its battle to undo the common sense it had had the courage to implement 12 years ago.
So, what had caused the huge and cumbersome International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to finally swing into action? Back in 2010, ICAO recognised that “Commercial air transportation is facing a crisis that could seriously hamper its ability …” It further “predicted significant worldwide shortages of hundreds of thousands of pilots and maintenance personnel within the next two decades. The lack of adequate air transportation to facilitate growth of commerce and industry will seriously affect global economic conditions.”
In the USA, Uncle Sam finally stirred himself into action. The Federal government passed ‘The Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013’ which includes the following: “The average small airplane in the United States is now 40 years old, and the regulatory barriers to bringing new designs to the market are resulting in a lack of innovation and investment in small airplane design.”
Importantly, the US government went on to explicitly reiterate the importance of the GA industry when it said, “General aviation provides for the cultivation of a workforce of engineers, manufacturing and maintenance professionals and pilots who secure the economic success and defence of the United States.”
The FAA sets the standards and the rest of the world (even Europe) tends to follow. So, what was particularly noteworthy was the change of mindset, from being prescriptive about designing regulations, to being inclusive and consultative, thus keeping the industry on the side of the regulator, rather than in conflict, as is all too often the case. The net result was that the FAA revised its FAR Part 23, which is the standard for the design and certification of aircraft up to 19 passenger seats and 19,000 lbs. Importantly for future pilots, the FAA’s new consultative approach means that the door is open for innovation, and makes it much easier to get new (more modern) aircraft certified.
Despite all this progress going on in the rest of the world, the SACAA bureaucrats continued trying to restrict NTCA training. As recently as May this year a senior manager – who was also part of the DFE debacle described last month – issued an AIC telling flight schools to stop using NTCAs. He went as far as to propose a revision of the key Part 141 training regulations.
Fortunately for the South African GA industry and training schools in particular, the Civil Aviation Regulation Committee (CARcom) was having none of it and referred the matter to a working group for discussion. The working group soon realised that, while the rest of the world has for the past 20 years been hard at work saving the dying GA industry, the CAA has been doing the exact opposite by trying to set the clock back to before 2006.
But the question must be asked: If the SACAA has been trying to set the clock back, do they have a point? What comfort do students – and their parents – have that modern uncertified (i.e. unapproved and experimental) NTCAs are in fact safe enough to train on?
The answer is to be found in the FAA’s realisation that the best people to make rules were not the FAA, but the industry itself. Back in 1995, the US Congress created the ‘National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act’, which mandated that Federal agencies (such as the FAA) “shall use technical standards that are developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies.”
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) was selected by the US aviation industry as the platform to be used to develop these technical standards. ASTM work group F44 is an assembly of around 250 aviation experts from all over the world who, via the internet and bi-annual meetings, work to establish by consensus the standards by which future aircraft will be designed and certified. They have thus far created 30 airworthiness standards which are fully endorsed by both EASA and the FAA.
What all this means is that the old rule book is being thrown out. When their work is complete, FAR 23 will no longer be the certification basis for aircraft below 19,000 lbs and 19 seats. This allows innovation and the use of modern technology which was excluded by FAR 23, or else subject to costly and complicated Supplementary Type Certificates (STCs). These STCs are required for every modification of an old aircraft design to, for instance, accommodate a more modern glass cockpit, or even LED landing lights, or far safer four-point harness seat belts. It also makes the certification process quick, easy and, most significantly, inexpensive, so that a host of new designs will reach the market place and actually be affordable. The future is looking much brighter.
Flight school owner and attorney Gerhard van Eeden says, “This means that the FAA can no longer make the rules by which aircraft are certified, but that industry has to come up with the relevant standards via voluntary consensus. Of great help to those battling to fly South African NTCAs cross-border is that the upside of using an internationally recognised standard is that aircraft so certified in one country will also be recognised in every other country.”
Van Eeden continues, “The principle of proportionality has further become very important. Not all aircraft have to be certified to the same level. Performance and complexity will henceforth determine the level of certification. There will no longer be Non-Type-Certified Aircraft.”
The net outcome is that all those flight schools which have built up fleets and stellar reputations using NTCAs for training have suddenly gone from being the target of continual legal skirmishes with the CAA’s hidebound and anachronistic bureaucrats, to finally being recognised as able to provide training as good as those flight schools who have had to invest three times as much in Cessna 172s.
Common sense has won at last. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s a new LED landing light on a modern and cost effective NTCA – not a train.