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Coming to Terms: Aviation Certifications
  • 09 Nov 2023 04:53 PM
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Coming to Terms: Aviation Certifications

By Al Lawless, Aurora Flight Sciences, and VFS E-VTOL Flight Test Council Chair
Vertflite Nov/Dec 2023

Normally this column corrects erroneous use of terminology and proffers definitions to be used as canonical. As the second in an extended series intended to bring clarity, this installment deviates as it highlights common aviation certifications.

The “Coming to Terms” article in the Sept/Oct Vertiflite explained “Airworthiness Certification” by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It also noted that airworthiness is but one thread in the masterful weave that evolved to keep traditional civil aviation activities running safely and efficiently. This installment calls out more of those certification threads via a quick (non-rigorous) tour of the agency that issues them.

FAA high-level staff offices support their five major lines of business. Of interest here are the Office of Airports (ARP), the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and especially Aviation Safety (AVS). The accompanying figure depicts all five businesses as tall silos within the administration. Silos are a natural outcome with disparate lines of business, but coordination is still required. Fortunately, the traditional lines of communication between these offices (figure’s notional arrows) have been evolving alongside everything else in aviation and serving us well.

The Office of Airports sets airport standards, helps with planning and certifies air carrier airports. The ATO runs the National Airspace System (NAS) and air traffic control (ATC). Examples of evolving technology and rules over the past two decades include incorporating new transponders (ADS-B), the advent of GPS, navigation and timing (PNT), implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), and high-altitude operations with reduced vertical separation minimums. These offices provide small threads in the certification weave, with regulators giving plenty of advance warning to percolate changes. Through them, pilots, operators and aircraft designers can see what new equipment, information and training will be needed to certify for safe and efficient NAS participation. The figure’s darker silos denote influence on certification rules that generally do not directly impact aircraft designers.

Most certification interest lies in the AVS line of business. Illustrated within AVS are shorter silos spanning medical certificates, ATC oversight, accident prevention, rulemaking and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration. As with the major lines of business, their work mostly influences requirement changes. This brings us to the two AVS inner silos most responsible for aircraft design and operational approval: Flight Standards Service (FS) and the Aircraft Certification Service (AIR).

The inner FS silo has several key offices. The Office of General Aviation Safety Assurance handles the 78 regional Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) responsible for certification of general aviation (GA) air operators, airmen and repairmen and air agencies (such as 14 CFR Part 135 commuter or on-demand operators). The parallel Office of Air Carrier Safety Assurance handles certification and oversight activities for Part 121 operations (scheduled air carriers).

Also under FS, the Office of Safety Standards handles a remarkable number of certifications and sets standards for the repair and alteration of aircraft and operations. Their realm includes operating airmen, general flight operations, UAS and flight technologies associated with air traffic management, airspace requirements and instrument flight procedures. Three of this office’s eight divisions handle the bulk of the work of interest here:

  • The General Aviation and Commercial Division is responsible for regulations governing certification of GA airmen, flight instructors, GA pilot schools, and certain commercial and public aircraft operations. They also handle remote pilot requirements for UAS.
  • The Air Transportation Division recommends governing certification and operation of air carriers, private carriers operating for compensation, aircraft dispatchers, flight engineers, navigators and training centers.
  • The Aircraft Maintenance Division ensures civil aircraft airworthiness. They develop rules and other material addressing certification of maintenance aspects for GA, air carrier and commercial operators, mechanics, repairmen and parachute riggers, avionics, maintenance schools, and repair stations.

Finally, we come to the AIR silo, which encompasses engineers, scientists, inspectors, flight testers and other experts. They have fewer than 1,300 personnel (less than 3% of the FAA workforce) and nearly 3,000 individual designees, including designated representatives for airworthiness (DAR), engineering (DER), and manufacturing inspection (DMIR). AIR is the primary service to satisfy when pursuing aircraft design approval and any of the airworthiness certifications covered in the previous installment — bringing this tour full circle.

Although the FAA’s certification-related offices and their responsibilities can be overwhelming, we hope this abbreviated synopsis provides a helpful understanding for those new to working with the agency. FAA professionals deserve credit for decades of developing offices, services and certifications that have kept civil aviation safe and efficient. Far harder to describe is the complex weave of intra- and inter-silo communications that influence, coordinate and deconflict; the graphic can only resort to a few notional arrows to convey such formal and informal interactions.

Logically, an aircraft’s certification basis and the accompanying requisite certifications accommodate the airspace and infrastructure within which the aircraft will operate — the concept of operations (ConOps). This installment’s recurring references to traditional aviation and evolution beg the question, “When new technologies proffer multiple revolutionary ConOps changes, what silos, communication lines and rules are disrupted or invented?” That is indeed what the FAA is working on today, with the goal of enabling the safe and expedient introduction of new kinds of aircraft to fly in the airspace in the years to come.

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