We blame the FAA for a lot of things we don’t like in aviation, and sometimes we’re right. But as I was standing there looking at the beautiful brand new Wacos here at AirVenture I realized the FAA isn’t in the business of obsolescence.
As you probably know, the Waco Classic is a brand new biplane built on the original type certificate issued in the 1930s. There was no FAA then, but its predecessor certified the Waco for production, and the FAA continues to honor that approval.
Not far away is the Aviat display with a host of Huskys and a Pitts or two. The Husky and Pitts are of fairly recent design. The Pitts, of course, began life as a homebuilt and then grew into an approved airplane. The Husky was designed for people who love the Super Cub but wanted more. As in more speed, more payload, more range, and even shorter takeoff and landing performance. The Husky and Pitts are built using airframe construction techniques not very different than for the Waco.
And over at the American Champion display are a bunch of fabric-covered taildraggers all tracing their design and certification roots back decades. The original company was Champion, and its most produced airplane was, well, the Champ. That basic tube and fabric design morphed into a line of airplanes designed for utility, sport, and aerobatic flying, and the type has remained in more or less continuous production.
There are a bunch of brand new light-sport aircraft (LSA) that all use traditional construction techniques even though the actual design and approval are only a few years old.
What struck me is that the FAA does not require us to change as new and alternative materials and techniques for building airplanes appear. If a Waco or Champ was good enough for our fathers, or grandfathers, it can still be built and certified today.
The FAA and its certification procedures take a lot of heat from many of us for retarding progress. New materials, new configurations, new engines, and new aerodynamics all must prove their safety before certification. But once an aircraft, its structure, and its flying qualities are accepted, they stay that way until and unless a defect is found.
I like the consistency of the FAA. Just because a new, or maybe even better, method of creating an airplane comes along doesn’t mean the previous designs are suddenly unacceptable. If you want to keep building an airplane the way you always have, that is acceptable with only a few exceptions.
Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if every time the FAA changed its certification standards, that change became retroactive to airplanes already in production? It would be impossible to manufacture airplanes under such a system.
The fact is that an airplane built from steel tube welded together, and wooden ribs and stringers, and the whole thing covered in fabric, is just as sturdy and airworthy as a new composite design. In fact, the old style airframe covered in fabric has some durability advantages over newer materials because, with the cover removed, the entire airframe can be completely inspected, and repaired as necessary. An airplane with a truly infinite life is one like the Waco where the most complex airframe component can be formed by a skilled craftsman using steel tube, or wood, or pounded out using sheet metal to form fairings and cowlings.
Those Champs and Huskys and Wacos and other newly manufactured airplanes made using traditional techniques really should be stored out of the sun, and they will need at least a little more maintenance than an airplane made from all aluminum or composites, but that is a convenience and economic issue, not an airworthiness concern. It’s all about what kind of airplane we want to buy, and the FAA allows manufacturers to give us an incredibly broad range of options. Only the market makes an airplane obsolete.