Posey Introduces Legislation to Allow Passengers on Experimental Aircraft

WhiteKnightTwo back safely on the runway after a successful SpaceShipTwo glide flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) has introduced legislation that would authorize experimental aircraft such as WhiteKnightTwo to carry spaceflight participants and crew for training and research purposes.

The measure, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), would enable Virgin Galactic and other operators to avoid the time consuming and expensive process of having their aircraft undergo FAA certification.

WhiteKnightTwo is the carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane. The company wants to use the vehicle to train spaceflight participants and to conduct microgravity research.

In addition to WhiteKnightTwo, H.R.2571 could open the door for passengers to train aboard retired military jet fighters.

The legislation has been on the wish list of Virgin Galactic and the commercial spaceflight industry for a number of years.

  • publiusr

    I agree with this.

  • JamesG

    I don’t. There are reasons, written in blood, why this restriction is in place.

  • Larry J

    Formal certification of a simple private plane can cost tens of millions of dollars under the current regulations. For a plane like WhiteKnightTwo, it could easily cost several hundred million dollars. Certified planes still have accidents, so how much safety does all of the money really buy?

  • JamesG

    That an exaggeration of the costs. But yep. Its one thing to build an experimental aircraft to… you know do experiments with, or even just fly around with you and maybe some friends. MUCH different if you are going into serial production for commercial service.

    Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic don’t exactly have a stellar safety/flight record. They are exactly who the FARs were written to protect the public from.

  • Larry J

    Try reading this. The certification process is long, complex, and usually involves multiple aircraft.
    http://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/aviation-international-news/2006-12-18/aircraft-certification-process

  • JamesG

    Perhaps Virgin Galactic should have read it?

  • Pantagruel

    Note they want to limit lifting restrictions on experimental aircraft passengers for “training and research”. I think this is reasonable.

  • JamesG

    Except what VG’s definition of “training and research” will be every single operation flight.

    The business or “experience” plan is for a flight of cust… er, passen… er, “participants” to ride in White Knight during the assent for a different group’s SS2 launch, where afterwards they will undergo “training” parabolic dives and climbs to get used to the variable Gs (and get more bang for their bucks). They can’t do that now because of the restriction of WK2’s experimental status.

  • savuporo

    Wrong company to make allowances for.

  • ajp

    Agreed. Its nothing more than a consolation prize for not making it to the Karman line. Its true there are lots of good arguments to be made for revising the certification process, but this undermines the entire purpose of the experimental designation.

  • duheagle

    Anyone who flies in SpaceShipTwo has already signed up to fly aboard an experimental aircraft that is never going to be certified in the civil aviation sense. I see no problem with permitting the same people to fly in a second experimental aircraft which will also never be certified to civil aviation standards.

    The White Knight Two has, in any event, flown much more than SpaceShipTwo has, to-date, and with no drama or loss of life. Anyone agreeable with boarding SpaceShipTwo won’t have any problem with the comparatively negligible incremental risk associated with a jaunt – or two or three – on White Knight Two. It’s an enhancement to the overall experience being purchased.

    I see no real problem here.

  • Larry J

    Government paperwork won’t make it more safe, just more expensive.

  • JamesG

    That isn’t the point. The rich and well connected shouldn’t be able to ignore the rules that everyone else has to follow. There is enough of that crap already.

  • JamesG

    See above. I guess we can just disagree.

  • redneck

    What the FAA has done is make it nearly impossible for a smaller company to certify an aircraft. That’s why the small aircraft you see are overwhelmingly either home built or antique. Modern design and mass manufacture would be far safer if legal and affordable.

  • Spacetech

    “That’s why the small aircraft you see are overwhelmingly either home built or antique”

    You obviously know little about General Aviation.

  • redneck

    Go to an airfield.

  • duheagle

    WK2 is also a Burt Rutan design. One of the last of 40-something aircraft he designed during his career. So far as I know none of Rutan’s/Scaled’s designs ever saw serial production or FAA certification as civil or general aviation aircraft in their original forms. A few of his designs saw certification after his prototypes were further developed for production and certification by the companies that commissioned them.

    Thousands of people fly, routinely, in non-certified experimental aircraft. The vast majority of these are homebuilts. Many of these are, in turn, Rutan designs. These require FAA inspection, but not certification – as did the WK2.

    The owners of most homebuilt aircraft are also among those whom I, at least, would classify as rich. Maybe not as rich, on average, as those who own certificated, mass-produced aircraft, but still rather better off than the Average Joe. So a bunch of the non-pilot rich flying in WK2 doesn’t strike me as representing any real departure from “the rules everyone else has to follow.”

    A lot of people, rich and poor alike, find ways to risk their lives for a thrill. The rich simply have more such options, as they do in pretty much every other aspect of life.

  • JamesG

    Still not the point.

    Go read up on the the accidents and incidents during the early days of commercial aviation back in the ’20s and ’30s to see why a certification process is a good idea. Also the certification process is tangled up in the liability and insurance issue too. What indemnifies a mfg (Scaled Composites) and the operator (Virgin Galactic) from unlimited liability is the notion that they have done due diligence in creating a product that is reasonably safe and have a piece of paper from the FAA that says so. It is how all of the still existent aircraft cos are still in business after operators have plowed the ground with their machines.

    I don’t know how they (VG) possibly expects to get an insurance carrier to even answer their call if they are exposed to the naked wrath of product liability law. Or is it their plan that if they ever get sued, to just fold the company and walk away?

    On to your example:

    Most experimentals and homebuilts only carry 1 to 4 pax and operate at modest airspeeds and altitudes. WK2 is most definitely not in that class, it is going to be carry a dozen plus and at very high altitudes, not to mention the explosive rocket that is also full of people.

    More to the point, is that WK2 is intended for routine commercial service and, according the VG’s marketing, they want to produce a whole fleet of them to operate at various places around the world. That is far and away beyond the intent and scope of the experimental designation. You can’t even do that with a 51% kit-plane.

    So, no sir. Virgin could slide with having the prototype WK2 fly under an experimental waiver during development and testing, but when they start carrying paying “participants” they should be doing it with a type certificate just like any real aircraft manufacturer would.

  • Rob Frize

    There’s also a moral aspect to expecting flight and cabin crew to work at a commercial-level flight tempo in an uncertified experimental aircraft which will be, by definition, inherently more risky than a type-certified one.

  • duheagle

    Funny you should mention the 20’s and 30’s in commercial aviation. If one cares to analogize SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X-Prize to Kitty Hawk, we aren’t even up to the pre-WW1 days of commercial spaceflight, never mind the 20’s and 30’s.

    One reason it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for the US Gov’t. to be certifying planes before they did was that the USG simply lacked the expertise to know how. That holds today anent commercial spaceflight. The only commercial space in-flight fatality to-date came as the result of a design feature that was intended to improve the safety of future passengers.

    True, WK2 is an aircraft, but it’s not as though the FAA has had nothing to say about its design, construction and operation. The same would be true of any future WK2 builds – in the same way the FAA insists on doing likewise for any homebuilt version of any other Rutan design. Just because a lot of Average Joes have built Vari-Ezes over the years, doesn’t excuse Joe Blow, who figures on building the N+1th Vari-Eze, from having the FAA looking over his shoulder as he does it. The FAA’s procedures for experimental aircraft strike me as being plenty adequate for WK2.

    For whatever it may be worth, I wouldn’t get on SpaceShipTwo under any circumstances. But I’d happily go up for a spin in WK2.

  • duheagle

    I don’t know that it would be “inherently more risky than a type-certified one. Given that the vast majority of aircraft accidents – be they in civil aviation, general aviation or experimental aviation craft – are the result of pilot error, the quality of the pilotage in question is likely to be far more relevant to real-world safety than whether several hundred million dollars have been spent and a truckload of paperwork filed. VG’s pilots are all test pilots and astronauts. That’s a considerably higher average skill level than you’ll find in the average cockpits of any commercial airline flying planes with full FAA civil certifications – including Virgin Group’s own scheduled airlines.

  • Rob Frize

    However, the low proportion of design flaws/mechanical failures as root causes may be in part due to the certification process.

    Also, I understand (and I admit I’m not an expert in this area) that the truckload of paperwork (and associated electronic data) can be useful in improving the training/simulation process for pilots.

    It just feels like a bit of a slippery slope – but of course the devil will be in the details of the legislation.

  • redneck

    On the small aircraft side, it’s likely that some of the ‘pilot errors’ are caused by the lack of available modern upgrades. One of my pilot friends mentions the higher quality of navigation available from his smart phone than the FAA approved devices available. At least once his phone got him out of a situation that would have been pilot error.

    The tech in many the small planes is that of the original VW beetle. it is so troublesome to get upgraded equipment through the FAA that most don’t even try. Either go without, or reclassify as experimental.

  • JamesG

    And… you still don’t get it.

  • duheagle

    That’s usually the case when there is nothing to get in the first place.

  • duheagle

    You may well be right. After watching a season of ‘Alaska Aircrash Investigations’ on the Smithsonian Channel, I found it appalling how primitive the piston engine technology is for most small general aviation aircraft. JamesG, in case you’re taking notes, these airplanes are all mass-produced and FAA certified. Continental and Lycoming seem to supply nearly all the engines for planes at the low end of the general aviation market. These engines typically employ what would be considered antique technology by the standards of the automotive industry. Magneto ignitions and carburetor intake systems are normative – technologies not routinely used in automotive applications for close to a half-century.

  • JamesG

    Well I guess you’re right if you don’t even understand the issue.

  • JamesG

    However they have the benefit of being extremely reliable, well understood technologies and because the costs of development, and yes, certification have been long paid for, they are the most economical solution to aircraft power.

  • duheagle

    The reliability of modern aircraft is due to over a century of hard-won knowledge about what works and what doesn’t and why. Certification standards are, in essence, just compendia of said experience. As the saying goes, these rules are written in blood. Government certifiers have essentially no track record of successful anticipatory regulation.

    Certification tends to fail especially badly when fundamental advances are introduced. Multiple fundamental advances in a single craft tend to be worse. The De Havilland Comet is kind of the paradigmatic example of this.

    A lot of people – apparently including you – seem to think processes such as FAA certification are the end result of millions of man-hours of “what-if” gaming of aircraft designs. They’re not.

  • JamesG

    You misunderstand what certification is for. It isn’t for the government to check and make sure a product is safe. It is to make sure that the manufacturer has made sure that the product is safe and keeps future copies of it safe.

  • duheagle

    Right. I guess that’s why the rate of general aviation crashes in Alaska is about one every 48 hours. Think how much worse it would be if we allowed, say wet-behind-the-ears, unproven 30-year-old automotive technology under the cowls instead of insisting on the 50-year-old, tried-and-true stuff!

    Fuel injection and modern ignition systems have been around for awhile now too. It’s kind of ironic that airplanes, which can easily wind up inverted in operation, have fuel intake systems based on a technology that depends on floats and gravity while autos, which never go inverted as part of their normal operation, are all fuel-injected these days – a technology that is orientation-agnostic.

  • duheagle

    On that basis, FAA inspection, which applies to experimental aircraft, would appear preferable to the FAA certification regime. So far as I know, FAA certification is a one-time-only thing. I don’t know of any requirement that on-site FAA inspectors watch every rivet being driven on the assembly lines at Boeing, or even at Lear, Beech, Cessna ,etc. FAA certified aircraft are required to have periodic inspections in service, but the same seems to be true for large experimental aircraft as well.

  • duheagle

    Someone certainly doesn’t. For the record, I’m the one who doesn’t think FAA certification is equivalent to some shaman’s amulet that wards off evil spirits.

  • redneck

    Regarding costs, just looked this up. The Cessna 172 first flew in 1955 and had an original price of $8,700.00. Now a 172 starts at $274,00.00. Even allowing for inflation and upgrades, that is a bit disjointed for a four seat basic vehicle.

  • JamesG

    Don’t be ridiculous. That is what the ju-ju beads and rabbits feet are for.

  • JamesG

    You interpreted the exact 180 opposite of what I wrote.

  • JamesG

    You should be careful not to get your aviation expertise from television.