LSA and Certification

The light sport aircraft (LSA) category is an experiment in alternative certification procedures that most of us in general aviation heartily support. Bottom line, we asked for a simplified certification process, one that LSA manufacturers could police on their own, and the FAA agreed.

While nobody got everything they wanted from the “special” LSA rule, it is a huge break from traditional FAA procedures. The consensus standards for S-LSA aircraft were created by ASTM, an independent manufacturing standards organization, not the FAA.

 Industry relies on ASTM to define all sorts of standards so that, well, a nut made by one company screws properly onto the bolt made by another. Obviously, nearly all of what ASTM does is more complicated than setting hardware size specs, but you can imagine what a tower of Babel we would have without standardization of everything used in manufacturing.

Because the FAA is not a part of ASTM, and it does not actually certify an S-LSA, it’s up to each manufacturer to conform. And only an S-LSA manufacturer can approve any changes or alterations to an S-LSA once it enters service. The STC process that the FAA uses to approve modifications to standard category airplanes can’t apply to S-LSA because there is no type certificate—the “TC” in the term STC.

The FAA’s only real involvement in the S-LSA process is to occasionally audit manufacturers to be sure they are conforming to their own ASTM  rules. The FAA didn’t make the rules. ASTM did. But the FAA reserved the authority to make sure S-LSA manufacturers are doing what they said they are doing in terms of manufacturing and testing.

What the FAA has discovered after auditing a number of S-LSA manufacturers is that several manufacturers can’t demonstrate that they meet the ASTM standard. Yes, what’s missing is mostly paperwork. But it is an unbroken paper trail—just like on the TV cop shows—that is acceptable evidence that the S-LSA was manufactured and delivered according to the spec agreed upon. Maybe an airplane without complete paperwork does conform to the standard, but maybe not.

Among the largest gaps in documentation appear to be manufacturing of major components, or even entire S-LSA, in one country, and then performing final assembly and delivery in another. Those procedures are not, in themselves, outside the S-LSA or ASTM standards. But any final assembly, or reassembly, of an S-LSA must be done by people using procedures that do meet the standard. And those procedures must be fully documented.

It’s easy to say that the airplanes are just fine, but the paperwork is the problem. True. But what if you bought an expensive car that didn’t have a proper VIN number. The car may be in perfect condition  and complete, but how do you demonstrate that? Just try to sell a car with an inaccurate VIN as I once did and you will find the car is essentially worthless because you can’t register it, license it or insure it.

These gaps in some S-LSA paperwork and procedures leave the FAA in a quandary. The FAA has granted each S-LSA maker the full authority to not only approve original production, but also to approve any modification, even simple ones such as installing avionics, and also to correct and warn of any airworthiness problems that develop. Without complete paperwork and demonstrated conformity to the ASTM standard the FAA doesn’t know what condition some S-LSA are actually in.

The backbone of any certification system whether it be airplanes, pilots, doctors or lawyers is evidence that a standard has been met. Without complete evidence of meeting a standard—even the self policed certification of S-LSA—certification goes out the window.

Complete and appropriate paperwork is absolutely crucial to the value of an S-LSA, just as it is for any airplane. If you don’t believe me check the value of an airplane with incomplete or missing logbooks. That airplane won’t be worthless, but a whole lot of value will be gone. And S-LSA with paperwork gaps is no different.

The FAA is asking for public comments on the S-LSA conformity situation as it searches for a remedy. You can go to Docket FAA-2012-0408 at to offer your ideas. The most important message for anybody shopping for an S-LSA is to do your homework and take every step possible to make sure any airplane you consider can demonstrate that it meets the standards. If it doesn’t have the necessary and complete documentation you won’t be getting what you paid for.

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6 Responses to LSA and Certification

  1. Thomas Boyle says:

    While many of us are more than a little concerned that elements (counter-revolutionaries, if you will) within the FAA may be trying to unwind the liberalization of certification under the LSA rule, I have to say I was amazed from the beginning that there was no certification/ASTM audit process in place at all. LAMA tried to establish a market-based audit process, but – very disappointingly – there seems to have been no interest in it. Perhaps the customers simply trust the manufacturers, but when it comes to aircraft there does seem to be some validity to the old Russian saying: Trust, But Verify.

    I think we may have had an unfortunate situation here, in that the aviation press might have been more on top of this, and might have led to manufacturers wanting an independent audit of their ASTM compliance, had it not been for the concern that an expose would bring down the wrath of the FAA on the entire LSA experiment.

    I think we all understand that paperwork has value in ensuring that work was done properly, helping to ensure safety. Nevertheless, I suspect that the primary reason to be concerned about paperwork is not safety, but the danger that improper paperwork could lead the FAA to turn someone’s airplane into an expensive paperweight. Safety-wise, there have been two designs (to my knowledge) that acquired reputations for being unsafe (at least one from a very reputable producer); both designs saw severe market consequences. It does appear that buyers have some awareness of brand and reputation, which is the primary market mechanism for ensuring safety of products. This may be why consumers didn’t care so much about auditing. Or, it may just be naivete/ignorance.

    In any case, we must now hope that the FAA will behave responsibly to help keep the experiment on track. The grandfathering of aircraft already produced suggests that its goals here are honorable: it recognizes that there is no safety issue so far, and is simply doing what it knows how to do, to ensure that an unscrupulous producer will not create on in the future.

  2. Thom Riddle says:

    There is more to the problem than merely production paperwork. In my experience with one SLSA in which I was part owner and others that I have helped maintain and inspect, the ASTM required and critically important maintenance/repair documentation and safety issues communication system were woefully inadequate or non-existent. So even if the aircraft met the manufacturing and assembly documentation requirements it still may not be effectively maintained and supported over its expected lifespan unless all the other ASTM standards are met. Non-compliance to the ASTM S-LSA standards by some manufacturers casts doubt on the whole industry and by association, the ASTM process. This is why it is of utmost importance that the FAA do what it is now finally doing. The idea of using ASTM standards is good but trusting the industry to self-regulate is naive in the extreme. In my mind it should have done the due diligence of verifying conformance of the first example built by each manufacturer before granting approval. Once the manufacturer has gone to the trouble of meeting all the ASTM standards, it is much more likely to maintain them. An occasional random inspection after approval would go still further to help ensure on-going compliance. This is not onerous over-regulation merely verification of compliance.

  3. Nickolaus E. Leggett says:

    Since paperwork is the problem, it can be cured with software. Establish a computer program that prompts the manufacturer for all the required information. Then have the program output the information in the correct document formats and structures required by the FAA. This prompting program would make sure that all the necessary information is collected and that it is properly presented to the FAA. This would cure a lot of this problem at a fairly low cost. It would be like using the Turbo Tax, tax preparation software.

  4. Randee Laskewitz says:

    The Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association (LAMA) has internal audit checklists available for all of it’s members. The checklists are very detailed. We have had several manufacturers ask for them and use them. We have encouraged all LSA Manufacturers to complete and report the required annual internal audit. LAMA is actively promoting a 3 party audit system and has 3rd party staff available for such help.

  5. Charles Rosemary says:

    I´ve heard about some manufactures that didnt pass the FAA check.
    Would anyone give more details or list which SLSA / LSA were checked and did not comply with the regulation?
    I`m looking to get a SLSA and would be very helpful to have this in mind with more details, at least to have the chance to surf the web looking for more specific info.

    Kind regards,

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