FAA Ultralight Aircraft Policy
No Major Safety Issues & Strong Business Status
The below article reported that an ultralight pilot sadly died in a crash of his regulated vehicle. Unlike two recent accidents, one involving a parachute and the second a balloon as the regulated vehicles, this tragedy did not generate significant comment or criticism.
Another column of criticism has been published in a number of media outlets and their common theme has been that the FAA’s heavy regulatory thumb is suppressing innovation as to UASs, SSTs and new forms of aviation. These opinions have postulated that the FAA’s regulations have inhibited the creation of a wide variety of new aircraft and/or offerings by entrepreneurs. The writers have credentials which indicate that their perspectives are driven by libertarian thought. Each scholar of these analyses has diminished the safety mission of the FAA.
These recent confluences of criticism for the FAA not being assertive enough in its regulating and of negative opinions about its rules frustrating free market forces is a useful “learning” moment. These contrary views qualify as meeting one of the aphorisms of a public policy pundit who pontificated:
“You know that you have established the right policy when there are equal measures of commenters/ critics, ½ lamenting how soft it is and the other ½ attacking it for being too tough.”
The debate on UASs, parachutes, balloons and SSTs has adequately recorded both sides of these regulatory regimes.
As to the ultralights, there has not been as much media traffic; so this space can curate the relevant regulatory plain.
This industry became significant enough in terms of volume in the late 1970s and the FAA started to determine what might be the appropriate seine to assure safety, protect the public from accidents and permit the growth of this new form of flight. As noted in the preamble of the new rules, the FAA noted an important precipitating set of events:
To illustrate the potential for hazardous situations that can arise, the FAA has recorded data detailing numerous instances of ultralight vehicles in controlled airspace causing near-miss situations with aircraft. The following examples highlight the problem:
(1) On March 24, 1981, an MU-2 flew between two ultralights operating off the end of the runway at Winter Haven, Florida. Both ultralights were equipped with floats and were operating at night without lights.
(2) On April 11, 1981, a Western Airlines 727 captain reported a near-miss with an ultralight vehicle in the vicinity of Phoenix, Sky Harbor Airport.
(3) In May of 1981, the pilot of a single engine aircraft reported a near-miss with an ultralight vehicle near Paso Robles, California. According to the report filed under the FAA Aviation Safety Reporting Program the ultralight was operating at 7,000 feet in IFR weather conditions. The airplane pilot, who was operating on an IFR flight plan, was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision.
In 1982, 14 CFR Part 103 was issued and its applicability created a generous space of qualifying vehicles—
(a) Is used or intended to be used for manned operation in the air by a single occupant;
(b) Is used or intended to be used for recreation or sport purposes only;
(c) Does not have any U.S. or foreign airworthiness certificate; and
(d) If unpowered, weighs less than 155 pounds; or
(e) If powered:
(1) Weighs less than 254 pounds empty weight, excluding floats and safety devices which are intended for deployment in a potentially catastrophic situation;
(2) Has a fuel capacity not exceeding 5 U.S. gallons;
(3) Is not capable of more than 55 knots calibrated airspeed at full power in level flight; and
(4) Has a power-off stall speed which does not exceed 24 knots calibrated airspeed.
Entry into this sphere was not encumbered by any certification of the aircraft or the pilot prior to operation (14 CFR§103.7). The Administrator retains the right to inspect any Part103 aircraft upon request (14 CFR§103.3). Subpart B sets the operating rules for ultralights is very generous:
…by specifying the airspace which requires prior authorization of Air Traffic Control (ATC), prohibiting operation over congested areas, and providing for operations during twilight hours with proper lighting. Right-of-way and minimum visibility rules are also established.
The breadth of the Part 103 permissible flight looks like a precursor to the soon-to-be effective Part 107 rules.
An interesting 2007 study of Microlight/Ultralight Accident Statistics reviewed the data for France, Germany, UK , Australia and Canada for different year periods and varying levels of information. Here is one of their tables; here is the one for France:
The NTSB has investigated a number of ultralight accidents and has issued, for example, Safety Recommendation A-85-014, in which the Board ultimately made the following statement:
|Response:||YOUR RESPONSE DOES NOT ADDRESS THE TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION OF ULTRALIGHT PILOTS. THE BOARD CONTINUES TO BELIEVE THAT THE FAA SHOULD REVISE ITS REGULATIONS TO MAKE ULTRALIGHT TRAINING MORE EFFECTIVE AND THAT THE FAA SHOULD ESTABLISH MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS FOR CERTIFICATION OF ULTRALIGHT PILOTS. FURTHERMORE THE SAFETY BOARD’S ULTRALIGHT SAFETY REPORT CONCLUDED THAT THE POTENTIAL FOR SERIOUS HARM TO THE PUBLIC IS SUFFICIENT TO INCLUDE ULTRALIGHTS UNDER 14 CFR PART 91–GENERAL OPERATING AND FLIGHT RULES. BASED ON THIS INFORMATION, THE BOARD CLASSIFIES RECOMMENDATIONS A-85-12 AND -14 “CLOSED-UNACCEPTABLE ACTION.” THE BOARD BELIEVES THAT THE FAA SHOULD CONTINUE TO PURSUE REGULATORY ACTION CONCERNING THESE RECOMMENDATIONS.|
To which the FAA responded:
THE FAA AGREES WITH THE INTENT OF THESE RECOMMENDATIONS AND INITIATED A RULEMAKING PROJECT TO RESOLVE POWERED ULTRALIGHT ISSUES IN NOVEMBER 1990. THE INITIAL DRAFT OF THE NEW RULE WAS COMPLETED IN DECEMBER 1991. SINCE THAT TIME, ADDITIONAL ACTIONS HAVE BEEN TAKEN WHICH HAVE IMPACTED ULTRALIGHTS AND THE OPERATORS OF ULTRALIGHTS.
The CFRs do not record any amendments to Part 103, but the FAA issued 90-89B – Amateur-Built Aircraft and Ultralight Flight Testing Handbook, which was issued April 27, 2015. Its preamble explains its intent:
This advisory circular (AC) provides suggestions and safety related recommendations primarily to assist amateur and ultralight builders in developing individualized aircraft flight-test plans. It also provides guidance for experimental light sport aircraft flight testing after modifications to the aircraft. It provides recommendations and suggestions you can combine with other sources on test flying, such as the aircraft plan/kit manufacturer’s flight testing instructions and other flight testing data. This will help you develop a detailed flight-test plan, tailored for your aircraft and resources.
This AC attempts to make you aware that test flying an aircraft is a critical undertaking, which you should approach with thorough planning, skill, and common sense. The flight-test plan is the heart of all professional flight testing. The plan should account for every hour spent in the flight-test phase and you should adhere to it with the same respect for the unknown that all successful test pilots share. The time allotted for each phase of a personalized flight-test plan may vary, and each phase may have more events or checks than suggested in this AC, but your goals, should be the same. You should add flight-test operational and performance data to the aircraft’s flight manual so you can reference the data prior to each flight.
The ultralight business has flourished economically; one forecaster predicts that Ultralight Aircraft Market worth 389.26 Million USD by 2020. That’s impressive.
The public policy professor could now declare that the regulators got it right with Part 103: no major safety issues and strong business status.