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When it comes to autopilot STCs, the devil is in the details

There’s been a lot said recently about the process aircraft manufacturers go through to get new models certified. Some of it is accurate. Some (most) of it is so much hot air dispensed by people who have never flown an airplane. But, such is today’s media.

Anyway, having been in the aviation business for a while, I can say that no aircraft or avionics manufacturer would knowingly take any type of certification ‘short cut.’ There’s just too much riding in the balance – and a company’s reputation is the least of it.

Everyone here at Genesys Aerosystems approaches every STC (Supplemental Type Certificate) project as if we are certifying a brand new autopilot. Take, for example, our recent programs to get our new S-TEC 3100 Digital Flight Control System approved for some 100 aircraft models.

Obviously, because of their performance similarities, some models can share STC approval. Take the venerable Beechcraft Bonanza 35 and 36 series, which includes 23 models spanning 55-years of production.

With regards to our autopilots, the 35/36 share an STC, but because we realized the gain settings need to be different for each aircraft operating under different conditions and with different types of avionics, we developed a test flight program that would require us to fly as many configurations as possible to ensure all the various interfaces worked correctly no matter the situation.

The goal of all of this testing is to enable pilots to safely install our autopilots no matter what types of avionics they currently have in the panel. Sure, there have been plenty of ‘growing pains’ with this approach, but with the help of some great customers, dealers and our exceptionally responsive customer support team, we’re getting better all the time.

But what goes into a typical STC program you ask? Let’s look at a recent S-TEC 3100 STC program for the Cessna T303 Crusader.

According to our lead FAA Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) Administrator and the guy who is in charge of all of our certification efforts, Steve Joseph, the plan for the Cessna T303 included some 90 different test points. And many of those items had multiple aircraft speed and configurations that had to be tested and passed.

What do Steve and his team check during these flights? As Steve explained it to me, pretty much every possible situation the aircraft and the autopilot can be engaged by the pilot. And, aside from the simple stuff like tracking a course or flying an approach, the tests include various CG locations, high and low airspeeds, all kinds of pitch, yaw and roll situations, and, since it is a light twin, a host of engine-out scenarios in various configurations.

All that’s just some of the “easy stuff.” Because the S-TEC 3100 has some new features like Envelop Protection and Level Mode, the flight test regime called for putting the airplane in some of those “unusual attitudes” and proving that, at the touch of the right button, the autopilot would indeed pull the pilot’s bacon out of the proverbial fire.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention all the various system failure modes that were tested. No matter what the test, it was done over and over again at varying weights, CGs, airspeeds, or whatever they could think of. All with the single-minded goal of proving to us, and the FAA, that the S-TEC 3100 would deliver the performance, capabilities, and safety that the owner/pilot is expecting.

While it may sound a little over the top, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Pilots put their trust in Genesys Aerosystems to deliver a safe product. And, in our opinion, no amount of testing is too much to invest in earning that trust with every flight.

Until next time, fly safely,