On February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration published its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (applicable to UAS weighing 55 lbs. and less). The proposed rules would add a new Part 107 to Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations to allow for routine civil operation of small UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS). Although a lengthy comment and revision period is expected to delay finalization of the regulations for another 18-24 months, Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 will continue to provide a procedure for expedited authorization of commercial small UAS operations in the interim. The final Part 107 will serve as the foundation for a multi-billion dollar UAS industry in the United States.
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee remarked in his opening statement that it is: “inexcusable and unacceptable to ignore rules, regulations and standard practices to accommodate those you have responsibility to regulate especially when you have people’s lives in your hands.” With that in mind, the Subcommittee heard testimony from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that the FAA had “alarming problems” and “severe lapses” in judgment in its certification process for the Eclipse EA-500, a Very Light Jet (VLJ). VLJs have been heavily promoted as a potential solution to congestion around larger airports, and as a means tobring a convenient, fast transportation alternative to smaller communities that cannot support network commercial air service.
In particular, the OIG made three findings concerning the EA-500 certification process. First, OIG found that the FAA permitted exceptions to its usual design certification process. For example, the FAA accepted an “IOU” from Eclipse that it would meet accepted standard at a later date for the avionics software. For an aircraft that relies heavily on software, the OIG would have expected the FAA to perform rigorous analysis and testing. Second, the OIG found that the FAA awarded Eclipse a production certificate even though the company failed to demonstrate the ability to replicate the approved design. This was despite that fact that Eclipse encountered numerous problems replicating its won aircraft design on the assembly floor both before and after receiving its certificate. Finally, Senior FAA management identified Eclipse as a priority certification and appeared to be lenient with the manufacturer.