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Aviation Safety Affects Us All

By Jack J. Pelton

March 28, 2019 - After the tragic 737 MAX accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia, aviation safety is under intense political and public scrutiny. To us, these incidents may seem unrelated to our kind of flying. After all, GA and specifically experimental amateur-built (E-AB) flying has enjoyed an impressive 57 percent reduction in fatal accidents over the past decade. So, it might seem that we’re all heading in the right direction and have little to fear from the negative attention being paid to these recent airline accidents. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The processes used by the FAA to oversee the certification of aircraft rely heavily on delegation as opposed to agency staff directly doing the work. The FAA provides oversight but, in many instances, the actual certification reviews and approvals are conducted by industry experts who have been authorized to do so. We in general aviation rely heavily on this sort of delegation too. Designated airworthiness and engineering representatives approve our new aircraft, equipment, repairs and alterations. Most of the time it is a designee that inspects a recently completed homebuilt and issues its airworthiness certificate, not to mention our airman and medical certificates. In fact, EAA has helped develop new categories of designees specifically intended to meet the needs of vintage and amateur-built aircraft owners, builders, and restorers. EAA partnered with FAA more 25 years ago in establishing the Specialty Aircraft Examiner program for designees conducting airman certification in Experimental and Limited category warbird aircraft

But the FAA’s designee programs, policies, and oversight are under heavy criticism and scrutiny, often by people with significant power and authority but not necessarily a lot of direct expertise. Today, significant political, media, and even international pressure is being brought to bear on the FAA’s historic and largely successful reliance on designees. Simply put, this is not just a problem for large aircraft manufacturers or airlines, it is a genuine threat to our way of life in general aviation too.

EAA has been spearheading advocacy efforts to improve the way we certify light aircraft, expand the scope of the light sport aircraft category we helped pioneer, and broaden the privileges enjoyed by some amateur-built aircraft through an initiative known as the Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC). We have also been working to introduce legislation that would afford liability protection to designees similar to the personal protections afforded to FAA personnel who perform the same functions. But these and other initiatives are being compromised by the negative attention being paid to FAA’s delegation processes. MOSAIC, as envisioned, relies heavily on additional delegation of FAA’s authority as does the entire LSA certification process. Seeking additional authority and privileges as well as liability protection for designees in this political environment is seriously challenged now and for the foreseeable future. EAA will continue to aggressively work these and other relevant issues, but it is clear that political pressure and the diversion of FAA resources will take a toll on our ability to advance these initiatives.

At EAA we recognize the inextricable connection between safety and our ability to advocate on behalf of our members. If we’re not perceived by regulators, politicians, and the public as being safe, we can’t successfully argue for new privileges and opportunities. We need to remember that we live in an aviation system and not simply the subcategory of general aviation. Our ability to advocate for new privileges can turn on a dime with just one or two high profile accidents.

Aviation safety affects all of us. EAA will never stop working to create new opportunities to grow and enhance personal aviation. But it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to ensure that we are flying as responsibly and safely as possible, not only for our own good, but for future of personal and recreational aviation as a whole. The next generation of pilots, aircraft owners, homebuilders, and restorers are counting on us.

This is a copy of Jack’s “Open Cockpit” column that will run in the May issue of EAA Sport Aviation, which was going to press as this piece was published. – Ed.

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