Some people are upset that the FAA granted the ICON aircraft petition to increase the maximum takeoff weight of the A5 LSA amphib above the 1,420-pound certification limit. But the FAA has followed well-settled precedent in granting the exemption to ICON.
The FAA found that the spin-resistant flying qualities of the A5 deliver the equivalent safety level of the lighter maximum weight in the standard LSA rules. That is the very logical rules flexibility that most of us want to see from the FAA.
And this type of significant certification rule adjustment is nothing new. One of the biggest previous examples of such a rules change came back in the 1980s when the FAA created the commuter category of the FAR Part 23 light airplane rules.
Several turboprop regional airliners were limited in payload and usefulness by the maximum takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds for Part 23 airplanes. Clearly airplanes like the Beech 99 and Merlin Metro could carry more weight. But the 12,500 rule forced any heavier airplane into the much more restrictive FAR 25 transport category that includes huge jets such as the Boeing 747.
The FAA decided that if an airplane could demonstrate safe engine-out performance, has good redundancy of systems, and the pilot has a type rating, it could move into a new commuter category and fly at weights greater than 12,500 pounds.
The commuter category worked. Several turboprop regional airliners qualified, but more importantly, newly designed light business jets could also qualify. Several models of the Cessna CJ family, Embraer Phenom 300, and others are certified under those commuter rules.
So ICON is the first airplane to get relief from the LSA weight cap. And to companies that have struggled to keep their LSA under the weight limits that may seem unfair. But the reality is that somebody had to go first, and then others can point to that precedent and seek their own exemptions from the rules.
The FAA actually operates much like the courts in the United States. There are laws, of course, but those laws must be interpreted and that’s what courts do. And judges look back at previous decisions to find precedent for a case before them.
The FAA considered the significant safety value of an airplane that won’t spin even though full pro-spin controls are applied and held. It then looked back and found many precedents where imposing different safety standards achieved the objective of the rule in the book, but in a different way. Just as the added requirements of the commuter category more than made up for the slight risk of a heavier airplane.
ICON spent the time and lots of money to develop and demonstrate its spin-resistant A5 without any assurance the FAA would grant the necessary weight increase exemption to account for the larger and heavier wing needed. It was a gamble. And now it has paid off. Instead of gaining an unfair advantage over other LSA makers, ICON has actually paid the initial cost for any who want to follow.
For other LSA designers and builders the route forward is clear. You, Mr. FAA, let ICON do it, and if I meet the same standard, you must allow me to weigh more, too. That’s how progress is made.