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  • Nancy Baldwin

FAA Will Re-Examine Rotorcraft Certification Standards

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced it will begin a formal process to review certification standards for normal and transport category rotorcraft.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on July 31, 2014, the FAA said there is “substantial interest” in revising the applicability standards for Federal Aviation Regulations part 27 (normal category) and part 29 (transport category) rotorcraft. Based on comments received from industry, the FAA will proceed with “establishing the appropriate forums” to consider possible revisions to parts 27 and 29 before initiating a rulemaking action.

The movement to revise parts 27 and 29 was sparked by Bell Helicopter’s 2012 petition to the FAA for a weight exemption for its Bell 429 — a twin-engine helicopter certified in 2009 as a normal category rotorcraft.

Currently, part 27 limits normal category rotorcraft to a maximum weight of 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) and a maximum passenger capacity of nine. Heavier and higher-capacity rotorcraft must be certified under part 29’s more stringent transport-category requirements.

However, in early 2012, Bell announced that it had received approval from Transport Canada to increase the maximum gross weight of the Bell 429 from 7,000 pounds to 7,500 pounds. The exemption came after extensive flight testing and required the installation of additional safety-enhancing equipment, including a helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS); a cockpit voice and flight data recorder; and a radar altimeter.

At the time of Transport Canada’s approval, Bell suggested to Vertical that part 27’s 7,000-pound weight limit was “arbitrary.” The company said that the 429’s modern technology made it more compliant with part 29 than many legacy transport-category rotorcraft, and argued that the weight increase would actually increase the aircraft’s safety, by allowing operators to carry additional safety-enhancing equipment and fuel for instrument flight rules (IFR) operations.

Since that initial approval, an additional 17 countries have granted Bell the 500-pound weight exemption for the 429. But the FAA shot down Bell’s petition for the exemption, finding no compelling safety reason for the exemption, and siding with commenters who argued that the exemption would provide a special favor to Bell at the expense of other manufacturers. (Bell has appealed the ruling.)

Despite denying Bell’s request for an exemption, the FAA acknowledged that, “the evolution of parts 27 and 29 has not kept pace with technology and the capability of rotorcraft produced currently.” In February 2013, it published a notice requesting comments whether rotorcraft certification standards need to be changed to remain relevant, and, specifically, on whether part 27 and 29 applicability rules should be changed from weight- and passenger-based standards.

In its latest Federal Register notice, the FAA reports that it received 48 comments in response to its request — from helicopter operators, industry associations, manufacturers, and others. “These comments indicated a substantial interest in favor of some form of revision or restructure of the rotorcraft design certification standards in parts 27 and 29 and expressed that the current regulatory scheme is outdated by technology and impedes the development of new rotorcraft models,” the notice states. Of the 48 comments received, only three were in favor of keeping the current weight- and passenger-based standards unchanged.

Based on this feedback, the Rotorcraft Directorate will begin involving interested parties in a review of the standards. “Parties interested in this initiative may look forward to future public announcements on upcoming developments,” the FAA advises in the Federal Register. The agency said it will also reach out to its bilateral partners, including Transport Canada and the European Aviation Safety Agency, and invite their participation in the effort.

Changes to parts 27 and 29 are unlikely to come swiftly, and Bell continues to press for a weight exemption for the 429 in the meantime. But the company toldVertical that it supports the FAA’s decision to review rotorcraft certification standards.

“We applaud the FAA’s decision to move forward on modernizing part 27/29 and agree with their conclusion that regulations need to keep pace with changes in technology to continue to drive safety and improvements in the rotorcraft industry,” said Bob Hastings, Bell’s senior vice president, Communications and Government Affairs.

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