The FAA Doesn’t Take Away

1929 Waco ATO Taperwing at AirVenture Oshkosh 2011

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. 

Aviat Pitts

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.

American Champ

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.

Aviat Husky

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.

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9 Responses to The FAA Doesn’t Take Away

  1. Thomas Boyle says:

    Mac,

    Seriously? The FAA is doing a good job, because there are ways it could make matters even worse – but it doesn’t (yet)?

    Touch of Stockholm Syndrome there, perhaps?

    Look, I’ll join you in giving the FAA credit for being a more forward-thinking agency than most Federal agencies: its regulations for Part 103 are a model it, and other agencies, could emulate more often!

  2. Terry Horn says:

    I think the FAA is a very oppressive agency that takes away our freedom in the name of safety and their real agenda is control and money.

  3. Roy Redman says:

    Mac…Thanks for the recognition, but the Black & Yellow Waco you show is NOT a newly manufactured Waco Classic, it is a 1929 Waco ATO Taperwing restored to new standards by Rare Aircraft Ltd of Faribault, MN under 14 CFR Part 43. And yes, the FAA does deserve credit for the administration of Part 43 which is what allows us to keep these magnificent old airplanes flying. In perspective, manufacturing a new one is easy. Bringing an old original back to life takes a whole different skill set, not the least of which is familiarity with the FARs and working with the FAA to bring it to the point of issuance of a new Standard Airworthiness Certificate.

    • Mac says:

      Sorry about that, Roy. I asked the photo people to run a shot of a Waco Classic, and they did, just not a newly manufactured one. But I guess it does prove the point with your perfect restoration looking exactly like a newly manufactured airplane.

      Thanks for pointing out the facts.

      Mac Mc

  4. Glennhake@hotmail.com says:

    Mac, I think you may get a different view if you talked to the manufacturers you mentioned. Jumping through FAA hoops and following their long and winding road of mandates is an arduous expensive task. Add Kent Tarver of Aeromatic Propellers and Alexandria Aircraft, purveyors of the Bellanca type certificates to your list. My hat goes off to those that have the tenacity to deal with the bureaucracy. I think the FAA budget could be cut 50% if it forced a proper reduction in useless bueracracy and mandates that would let the manufacturers produce and consumers buy the products they want. Then watch our industry prosper!

    I understand these thoughts go against the grain of current thinking of cradle to grave government government baby sitting, but that is exactly why less regulated businesses whether it be outside aviation or inside like experimental aircraft are doing better with more enthusiastic passionate customer bases than the highly regulated industries.

  5. Rod says:

    Your kidding? The FAA allows methods and techniques that have been proven for generations and by every imaginable use including war. The FAA gets credit for this no brainer! Wow, that’s digging deep.

  6. DP says:

    Mac,

    I couldn’t disagree more strongly regarding the FAA. Look at the LSA class of aircraft and LSA certification as an example. While many people view the rise in popularity of the LSA class of aviation as a triumphant win for aviation, it is also glaring evidence of the massive oppression that the FAA has placed on the industry. When the FAA took the regulations involving “the medical” and lightened them up just a touch… a whole new industry was born, the LSA.

    Now just imagine if the FAA lightened up across the board on their regulations and certification process. What a thriving industry we would have! Currently the FAA merely blesses something as certified or not. If it’s not certified it’s relegated to experimental aircraft. If it is certified it’s doomed to obsolescence because of the cost of re-certification.

    Imagine instead a world where there are degrees of certification, just as there are degrees of pilot license. Five star rated engines could be the equivalent of today’s fully certified engine, but at least there could be three star rated or one star rated engines that could be sold and used. Imagine the new engines, avionics and air-frame designs that could FINALLY get to market before their funding dried up. I could finally afford to upgrade the avionics in my 70 year old certified airplane, because I could use three star avionics from Dynon rather than five star stuff from Garmin. Sure the plane would drop overall from a five star to a three star in the governments eyes but anyone buying the airplane would rather have a new Skyview than 60 year old instruments anyway. That’s the reality.

    Specific examples aside, there are serious problems with the FAA regulations across the board that create significant and unnecessary burdens in the aviation community. The regulations are industry killers and the fact that aviation has survived at all is a testimony to the enthusiasm and energy of the people who love to fly.

    I’m all for keeping the design of a 1926 WACO around, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The FAA is a 16 billion dollar government agency that serves roughly 600,000 pilots. That’s $26,600 per pilot per year for the services the FAA provides. Of course we can divide up the 16 billion by the 32 million flights each year in the U.S. and arrive at $500 per flight (even those ultralight flights). No matter how we slice it up, we will have to agree to disagree on this. I just can’t find a way to view the FAA as anything other than a government agency bloated with red tape.

  7. Paul says:

    DP is right on about the FAA. It should be reorganized to not be a police agency, but one that works with aviators to bring more business to the GA industry. The time for change is now, with the holding of thier funds. This article does make one wonder about, “Stockholm Syndrome.”

  8. Robert Cumberford EAA 9902 says:

    Any agency that requires plus and minor tolerances for pilot holes for wood screws (as in the certified Pitts) is more than a little out to lunch. And the cost to the polity for the FAA really is excessive if viewed as $26,000 per pilot per year.

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