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 www.regulations.gov 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.