The future of advanced air mobility, with air taxis transporting passengers to and from key hubs, is closer than many think.
On June 7, 2023, the FAA took an important step forward by releasing a 529-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to answer many important questions surrounding pilot certification and operation of powered-lift aircraft. The NPRM is currently in an “unpublished” format, and its scheduled publication date is June 14, 2023. Thereafter, there will be a 60-day comment period.
Powered-lift aircraft are defined in 14 CFR part 1 as heavier-than-air aircraft capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing, and low speed flight that depend principally on engine-driven lift devices or engine thrust for lift and on non-rotating airfoils for lift during horizontal flight. In other words, powered-lift aircraft takeoff and land vertically (VTOL) similar to a helicopter and fly similar to airplanes in cruise flight. Runways are not required for powered-lift aircraft.
Highlights in the NPRM include:
The FAA understands and envisions a future with powered-lift aircraft. The FAA acknowledges that many of the powered-lift aircraft that are expected to enter the civilian market have complex and unique design, flight, and handling characteristics with varying degrees of automation. The FAA anticipates that these aircraft will be used for many different operations, such as transporting crew and material to offshore oil rigs, transporting injured passengers as an air ambulance, and transporting passengers in urban environments as an air taxi.
The FAA recognizes that changes to the current regulations will be required. The FAA recognizes that to safely integrate powered-lift aircraft into the national airspace system, changes to current regulations, including for pilot certification, training centers, and operating rules will be required. Some of these changes will be temporary through a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR), which under the NPRM has a proposed duration of 10 years.
Changes to Pilot Certification Rules. The FAA proposes that qualified pilots hold type ratings for each powered-lift they fly, since it is not currently feasible for the FAA to establish classes of aircraft for the new aviation technologies (in contrast to current manned aviation). This is due, in part, to the vary designs and technologies of powered-lift aircraft. Proposed changes to the pilot certification rules include reducing training roadblocks and ensuring that there is a qualification pathway for powered-lift pilots to operate in Part 135 (generally, commuter and on-demand operations). The FAA envisions a mechanism where pilots who work for powered-lift aircraft manufacturers serve as flight instructors who then train instructors at flight schools, training centers, and air carriers.
Changes to Operational Rules. The NPRM provides that the requirements for Parts 91 (general operating rules); 97 (standard instrument procedures); 135 (commuter and on-demand operations); 136 (air tours); and 43 (maintenance) all apply to powered-lift aircraft. Generally, the FAA proposes applying the helicopter operational rules in Part 136 to powered-lift operations (because the FAA expects powered-lift aircraft to hover and operate similar to helicopters when conducting air tours, except when relying on horizontal lift), and also applying airplane rules under Parts 91 and 135 (given the aircraft’s behavior of an airplane when in cruise flight). The impact of this statement is that many (but not all) of the airplane operational requirements under the “general operating rules” and for “commuter and on-demand operations” will apply equally to powered-lift aircraft, although additional requirements may exist.
Changes to Aircraft Maintenance Rules. In the NPRM, the FAA proposes that the maintenance rules for powered-lift aircraft remain the same as under current Part 43 with two exceptions: (1) preventative maintenance will only apply for 135 operations in remote areas; and (2) part 91 operators are required to inspect “critical parts” of the aircraft as opposed to compliance requirements under current Part 43.
The FAA Does Not Propose New Requirements for Type Certification Requirements. The NPRM makes clear that the FAA is not proposing to establish any new requirements for the type certification of powered-lift aircraft or proposing to revise existing type certification requirements. That is because the FAA has determined that existing aircraft certification requirements are sufficient to type certificate powered-lift aircraft as a special class under 14 CFR 21.17(b). According to the NPRM, the special class process allows the FAA to address the novel features of unique and nonconventional aircraft without the need for additional processes such as special conditions or exemptions that would be required if the FAA used the airworthiness standards already in place.
Overall, there is a lot to unpack in the 529-page NPRM. We will continue to comment on the specific provisions of the NPRM in the weeks to come.