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Aircraft Certification 101

Steve Thompson
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Chances are you have heard the term “FAA certified” many times. After all, one of FAA’s key roles is certifying people, organizations, and equipment to provide a safe National Airspace System. However, the word “certified” can have various meanings, depending on the context. For one, you likely remember some of the checks you went through to get your latest medical certificate. Or, you undoubtedly recall the exhilaration you experienced the day you completed your check ride and earned your pilot certificate. But, you may not be as familiar with FAA’s certification of aircraft and how it affects you.

FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service is responsible for overseeing the (a) design, (b) production, and (c) original airworthiness certification of civil aircraft and related products. Each of these three kinds of certification has likely played a role in the safety of the aircraft you fly, unless you have an aircraft with a special airworthiness certificate, e.g., an amateur built aircraft. Understanding the basics of aircraft certification can help you make sound decisions affecting the airworthiness and operation of the aircraft you own or rent.

Design – Type Certificate

Although not sufficient by itself, a type certificate (TC) is a necessary step along the path to producing and selling aircraft to the public. A TC is FAA approval of an aircraft type design. FAA considers an aircraft type design to include items you might expect, such as drawings and specifications. The type certificate also includes the airworthiness and operating limitations.

To obtain a TC, a company must show that the aircraft design complies with FAA standards. These standards lay the groundwork for safe handling qualities, structural integrity, systems reliability, and other characteristics that many of us take for granted in the aircraft we fly. One of the key ways a company shows compliance with the airworthiness standards is through testing, such as on-ground wing structural tests and in flight spin tests. FAA’s role is to examine the type design and oversee the tests to verify the product complies with FAA standards.

A supplemental type certificate (STC) is a TC that FAA issues to approve the modification of an aircraft from its original design. The STC consists of both the Administrator’s approval of the change in the product’s type design and the type certificate previously issued for the product.

As you might expect, a company seeking a design approval today must show compliance with different standards than those used a decade or more ago. Advances in technology, such as development of inflatable restraints often drive regulatory changes. Other changes to airworthiness standards stem from knowledge gained through accident investigations. You can find the certification basis for your aircraft type by reviewing its type certificate data sheet, available on the Internet at www.airweb.faa.gov. You can access the airworthiness standards at www.faa.gov/regulations_policies.

Production – Production Certificate

A type certificate approves the design, but it says nothing about a company’s ability to consistently reproduce that design in aircraft it manufactures for sale to the public. Within a short time after type certificate issuance, a manufacturer typically establishes an FAA approved production inspection system or obtains a production certificate. The intent of production certification is to ensure that each product conforms to its type design, and that it is in a condition for safe operation. FAA conducts ongoing audits and evaluations to make sure the company’s production system continues to meet standards.

Parts manufacturer approval (PMA) is a combined design and production approval for modification and replacement parts. It allows a manufacturer to produce and sell these parts for installation on type-certificated products.

Airworthiness – Airworthiness Certificate

The last of the three major kinds of aircraft certification is the one you are probably most familiar with—airworthiness. As pilots, our preflight responsibilities include making sure that the aircraft has an appropriate and current airworthiness certificate displayed onboard. The aircraft must meet two conditions for issuance of an airworthiness certificate:

• The aircraft must conform to its type certificate. That is, the aircraft configuration and installed components must be consistent with the drawings, specifications, and other data that are part of the type certificate. That includes any supplemental type certificate and field-approved alterations incorporated into the aircraft.

• The aircraft must be in a condition for safe operation.

Many factors can affect these two conditions after issuance of the airworthiness certificate and it is our responsibility as pilots to determine that an aircraft is airworthy before flying it.

How Aircraft Certification Affects You

FAA’s aircraft certification processes work together to promote aviation safety throughout the product’s life cycle—design, production, entry into service, and continued operational safety. Of course, safe design and construction are only part of the picture when it comes to safe aircraft. You can help keep your aircraft airworthy—safe and in conformance with its type design—by maintaining and operating it according to its airworthiness and operating limitations.

The top priority for FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service is to oversee the continued operational safety of aircraft and other aviation products after they have entered service. FAA monitors the safety of the fleet and approves manufacturers’ design changes that contribute to safety, typically in the form of service bulletins. FAA also issues airworthiness directives to correct unsafe conditions.

One of the most important tools FAA has for monitoring the continued operational safety of general aviation aircraft is the service difficulty reporting (SDR) system. With this system, mechanics and others can report malfunctions and defects. FAA uses this system to monitor service experience and identify potential safety issues. These reports are a good source of information on where pilots and mechanics have experienced maintenance problems. To submit or review service difficulty reports, go to: www.faa.gov/aircraft/safety/alerts.

If you would like to learn more about aircraft certification, visit www.faa.gov/aircraft/air_cert. This part of the FAA Web site offers information about obtaining a field approval or supplemental type certificate. You can also learn more about PMA parts, technical standard orders (TSO), and a variety of other topics.

Steve Thompson is an Aerospace Engineer at the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate in Kansas City, Missouri. He holds a commercial pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings.

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