Start Holding Up Your End, FAA

It’s always interesting talking with the creative folks who develop major aircraft modifications and conversions about going through the process of getting STC certification from the FAA. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a new STC-holder comment that had he known of the hassles, conflicting instructions, interminable delays and costs he’d face in dealing with the FAA, he’d have never sought an STC.

I can’t help but wonder how and why the FAA has turned what should be straightforward, objective demonstrations of regulation compliance into exercises that rival the travails of a character in a Kafka novel.

Right now, before the effects of the sequestration budget cuts take hold, the mod shops tell me that getting an STC takes more than two years if you’ve done everything right and, more importantly, are lucky.

That’s crazy. The regs and procedures for issuance of an STC have been in place for years. The approval system has run off the rails.

The computing capability and software for flight and ground test data collection, reduction, analysis and presentation has improved dramatically in the last 20 years, yet FAA decision-making on applications has slowed to a where a crawl would be a good pace.

Industry is holding up its end of the regulatory deal. It’s hiring DERs (FAA-approved Designated Engineering Representatives) to reduce the FAA’s workload on analysis and approval of technical data. It’s taking advantage of the computer revolution to present test results in the clearest and most comprehensible fashion possible.

The FAA isn’t holding up its end of the regulatory deal—the part where it acts professionally, in a timely manner. The FAA personnel at the tip of the arrow, working directly with industry, tend to be knowledgeable, competent engineers. Yet, they are buried in time-wasting, morale-sapping administrative tasks. Plus, having been second-guessed on minutiae so often by middle management, they follow the path of least resistance and send all but the most routine decision up the chain of command. What should be reviewed in days can take months.

To make matters worse, the reports of middle managers moving the goal posts after all of the testing has been done and the data presented are too common. The unfortunate scenario is that one of them will decide, out of the blue, that even though the safe test protocol has long been set at 25 spins in each direction or 30 cooling climbs to altitude—and those were the numbers agreed upon between the FAA and the applicant for the STC—that now there must be 50 spins or 60 cooling climbs and additional instrumentation will have to be put on the airplane.

Those who feel the need to add meaningless tests are not doing so out of fear of litigation—FAA employees can’t be held personally liable for a certification decision. Why do they do it? I don’t know. Ego? Incompetence? No matter the cause, the effect is toxic.

The mod shops don’t dare complain because of fear of retaliation. They know that it’s virtually impossible to fire anyone at the FAA, so they grit their teeth and pass the FAA-induced costs to us, the users.

I recognize that the FAA has no obligation to support aviation—yet, as a public servant, it has an obligation to carry out its regulation activities professionally and not harm the aviation-using public through toleration of incompetence or lack of professionalism within. 

 I wonder what will happen next. I watch the level of anger mount at the cost of the FAA’s unwillingness to do its job. I see the negative effect on safety as pilots fly less as costs mount, increasing the risk of accidents. With sequestration budget cuts, the delays are only going to increase unless the FAA decides to police its own house. I’m not optimistic. —Rick Durden