Viasat radome on a JetBlue aircraft.

LiveTV clears major FAA bird strike test hurdle


Adds further comment from Gogo, which disputes the assertion that the FAA strengthened its guidance because Gogo proposed evaluation of bird strike at speeds slower than required by the airworthiness standard. Gogo notes that when applying for STC, it did so using the operating speeds that were historically used to approve these STCs.

LiveTV is claiming the distinction of being the first inflight connectivity provider to successfully meet the US FAA’s more stringent requirements for bird strike testing of large radomes that are mounted atop aircraft to house antennas for Wi-Fi and live television, Runway Girl Network can reveal.

The JetBlue Airways subsidiary last summer received supplemental type certification for Airbus A320 aircraft to install Ka-band satellite-supported connectivity; one month later it announced it had received STC for the Boeing 737-900.

But these new STCs – like others – were rewarded by the FAA with a caveat: all connectivity providers must still show compliance with fresh guidance on bird strike testing, a process that has proven to be quite time consuming.

Tests were conducted on LiveTV’s radome, which was co-developed with General Dynamics Ordinance and Tactical Systems, says LiveTV. The FAA has now removed the bird strike exemption from LiveTV’s A320 STC, and similar FAA approvals are expected for Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft for LiveTV.

“This is an outstanding accomplishment for LiveTV and a tribute to what can be accomplished when government regulators raise the bar in the interest of public safety and the industry works in collaboration by leveraging technical advances in manufacturing to meet a common goal,” says LiveTV president of corporate quality and certification Nick Drivas.

Geoff Caywood, senior manager, business development for General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, adds, “We were excited for the opportunity to work with LiveTV to develop a radome solution that could perform across the wide frequency bandwidth while achieving bird strike survivability requirements mandated by the FAA.”

Meanwhile, connectivity providers Gogo and Panasonic Avionics are grappling with delays to their Ku-band connectivity programs . The FAA previously accepted a probability analysis for bird strike test validation and did not require a physical bird strike for domes on the top of aircraft. However, the FAA now requires a certain amount of actual bird strike tests to demonstrate that a flight could be successfully completed with structural damage sustained when a radome is struck by a 4-pound bird at speeds of over 400 miles per hour.

“By really doing the [physical] test, you see what really happens, and it actually supplies the data, and you can see into your simulation. It makes your model more accurate,” Panasonic Avionics VP, Global Communications Services David Bruner previously told Runway Girl Network.

The FAA felt compelled to strengthen its guidance in the first place because Gogo proposed evaluation of bird strike at speeds slower than required by the airworthiness standard. Gogo disputes this assertion. A Gogo spokesman says, “This isn’t accurate. When Gogo first applied for its STC, we did so using the operating speeds that were historically used to approve these STCs.  We did not propose using a slower speed than what was in the original airworthiness standard. Obviously, since then, there was a change in the FAA’s testing criteria and we are working through the new process just like our competitors.”

In a Q&A with Runway Girl Network, the FAA said a manufacturer “attempted to circumvent the intent of the rule by proposing an unrealistically low VC at sea level. In order to ensure that the intended level of safety would be maintained, it amended the language to specify ” VC at sea level or 0.85 VC at 8,000 feet, whichever is more critical. (In terms of true airspeed, 0.85 VC at 8,000 feet is approximately equal to VC at sea level.)”

Since that time, Gogo’s timeline for equipping Delta Air Lines’ long-haul aircraft with Ku-band connectivity has slipped significantly to the right, and Gogo is under the gun to make headway in the program. “We are diligently working through the process and working with the FAA on it,” says a Gogo spokesman, declining further comment.

Industry observers are curious about whether the FAA will eventually require connectivity providers to apply the agency’s latest guidance retroactively to prior STCs, a move that would impact Global Eagle Entertainment, which has fitted Ku connectivity to some 435 737s in Southwest Airlines’ fleet.

However, the FAA has not given any indication that it will do so, says Global Eagle chief technology officer John Guidon. And a number of analysts believe the 737 is not impacted by bird strike.

Like Panasonic and Gogo, Global Eagle is pursuing testing programs that entail both simulation and physical bird strike tests as it seeks to secure STC for its connectivity system on other aircraft types. “We have a comprehensive program which includes both real-world testing and analysis,” says Guidon.

Asked if Global Eagle is installing connectivity on any aircraft under an exemption from the FAA, Guidon says, “Not at present, but we don’t rule it out for new STCs.”