‘E for Experimental’: The CAA consults on General Aviation

As part of the government’s on going ‘Red Tape Challenge’, the CAA have this week announced a consultation into proposed changes to the current regulations surrounding the testing and approval process for new, light aircraft designs.

The General Aviation (GA) industry within the UK is significant – with over 95% of the 21,000 aircraft registered in the UK engaged in GA operations, and the sector worth around £1.4bn to the UK. However, despite the global increase in new light aircraft designs and developments, there has been a decrease in the number  aircraft designed and built here in the UK. According to the RAeS, the contributing factor is the cost and time it takes to obtain permission to test fly a light aircraft.

Current rules

At present, if an organisation wishes to fly a new GA component design or test aircraft, the organisation must be firstly approved under certain conditions – as part of the British Civil Airworthiness Requirements (BCAR). These conditions will then enable an aircraft to fly without a Certificate of Airworthiness or Permit to Fly in force.

However, not only do organisations who hold these conditions not usually see a market for themselves in GA, but smaller organisations which are designing new aircraft for GA, cannot afford the cost of compliance required by the CAA.

The alternative is to apply for a national Permit to Fly – but this cannot be achieved without the applying organisation providing extensive details of the design and flight characteristics – in order to convince the CAA to allow the test aircraft to fly.

New Proposals

Under new proposals, a method of obtaining permission to fly an experimental aircraft would be through an organisation meeting new “E” conditions – applicable to aircraft with a Maximum Take-Off Weight Authorised (MTWA) of 2000kg. These conditions would only be applicable for a fixed period of time (i.e. 6 months) in order to help foster the initial stages of design and testing – and would be followed by a full design and certification programme.

This proposal seeks to remove the current burdensome regulations which are required, and replace them with a specific exemption for new experimental aircraft test flying – provided the safety conditions are met.

The conditions include introducing the concept of a ‘competent person’ that has been authorised and approved by the CAA to oversee the design, construction and flight testing. The competent person will undertake a risk assessment, and outline – the start and finish dates of the programme; the maximum number of flights to be undertaken; the area in which the testing will take place (away from populations) and any required equipment to be carried.

The Future

It is hoped that these changes will encourage both large design organisations and smaller individuals to bring new ideas and designs to flight testing – boosting the research base in the UK for new aviation technology. New designs could not only offer new and innovative types of aircraft to the general aviation market, but also improve safety & performance.

One future benefit could be greater UK research into Electric aircraft – especially as the UK already has expertise in propulsion technology and in composites – of which electric aircraft are likely to be comprised of (the Airbus E-Fan demonstrator is an important example of the developmental stages of this technology).

Whilst safety is paramount and future changes must seek to ensure experimental aircraft are allowed to fly under safety guidelines and risk assessments, future changes could allow the UK to be at the forefront of new light aircraft design – which in the long term, may be adapted on a much larger commercial scale to benefit the wider Aerospace industry here in the UK.