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NVG Civil Industry: Past, Present, and Future
By Randy Rowles


It is no secret the civil NVG industry was born from military utilization of night vision technology. The acceptance and eventual proliferation of Night Vision Goggles (“NVG”s) into the civil aviation industry is not without bumps and bruises. The path to acceptance by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and civil industry operators alike, has required education, patience, and compromise. Today, nearly fifteen years after the first civil operator was approved by the FAA to utilize NVGs, the civil industry continues to be plagued with issues related to regulatory oversight. In this article, we will discuss: past efforts to standardize the civil industry; how those efforts support today’s NVG industry; and efforts taking place today to ensure a safe, healthy, and prosperous future for NVG operators and regulators.

The FAA recognized the need for assistance in the development of NVG regulatory documents, policies, and guidance. Due to this need, a Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Committee was formed on May 5th, 2000. RTCA functions as a Federal Advisory Committee. Its recommendations are used by the FAA as the basis for policy, program, and regulatory decisions and by the private sector as the basis for development, investment and other business decisions. Through this organization, subject matter experts (SMEs) are convened to discuss and eventually make recommendations. RTCA then provides those recommendations through documents that are numbered and tracked according to the specific RTCA committee they are associated with. In the case of civil NVGs, the documents created and submitted to the FAA are the DO-268 (ConOps NVIS Civil Operations), DO-275 (MinOp Standards NVIS Civil Equipment), and DO-295 (Training NVIS Civil Operations).

Today, much of the guidance to include FAA Order 8900.1 (Aviation Inspectors Handbook) references RTCA documents on night vision. It is important to note that the FAA uses NVGs as the common term used to describe Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS) as you may see both terms used within FAA references. The fact that the FAA has chosen to adopt RTCA recommendations and identify those references within their guidance would insinuate a standard however, this may not always be the case. An example is found in NVIS Evaluation Inspection guidance. This guidance specifically identifies RTCA DO-275 as the performance standard for NVGs in alignment with a TSO. However, if you follow DO-275 specifically, not all of the performance standards are mandatory. In RTCA DO-275 Page 12 Paragraph 2.2.1.7.1, the minimum [Spectral Transmission] of a civil NVG is a Class B objective lens. The FAA does not mandate Class B thus not ALL of DO-275 is followed.   

In 2009, the FAA released new regulations that included significant additions to include NVGs. The NVG regulations added/updated are found in FAR Parts 61 & 91; they provide pilot, Instructor, and aircraft equipment certification requirements. The regulations have provided civil NVG users a foundation to develop NVG training programs, operating procedures, and instructor minimum standards. With every positive, there eventually comes a negative or two. The addition of regulation was put in place prior to having sufficient NVG-experienced FAA personnel. This lack of experience caused delays in certification, approvals, and in some cases, direct oversight by the FAA.

Months prior to the FAA’s release of NVG regulations, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel wrote a letter to the White House (30th July 2009) regarding an alleged Whistleblower Disclosure violation by FAA leadership. An FAA Principal Operations Inspector (POI) made claim that FAA leadership failed to implement a formal process to ensure air medical helicopters identified with improper NVG modification were addressed. The allegation claims these aircraft were not airworthy and may be unsafe to operate.

Although this inspector’s claim dated back to 2008, the FAA acknowledged the importance of proper NVIS lighting modifications with the addition of FAR 91.205(h). Additionally, the regulation further states that NVGs must be FAA approved. On the surface, this regulation may appear simplistic; however 90% or more of the NVGs utilized in FAA regulated flight operations are not FAA approved. The only NVGs to date that hold FAA TSO-C164 approval are Nivisys Night Vision Aviator Goggles (NVAG). The other NVGs the FAA allows are the ITT F4949 and L3 M949 NVGs. These NVGs are not FAA approved but the FAA has stated they are FAA Accepted. As stated earlier, many of these NVGs do not meet the minimum performance standards of RTCA DO-275; a reference taken directly from FAA Order 8900.1 specifying the minimum standards for use of NVGs. Why does this variance exist? It is not immediately clear.   

The FAA has recently taken position that NVGs themselves are part of a specific aircraft NVIS modification. In this statement, the intent and current oversight by some FAA inspectors require the operator to track NVGs to a specific aircraft by serial number. Additionally, components of the NVG itself must be tracked and maintained as a unit i.e. battery pack, helmet mount, etc. Many NVG maintainers have declared this oversight unnecessary as none of a NVG’s sub-component affect the operation of the NVGs; they either function or don’t. This type of oversight would reduce potential safety benefits of NVGs because pilots that would like to acquire personal FAA-approved NVGs or helmet mounts for use in multiple NVIS aircraft would not be able to do so. Additionally, the cost to configure every aircraft with NVGs as they would now be tied to that aircraft serial number would cause an extreme economic impact to industry without enhancing safety. This oversight would only prove to benefit FAA personnel surveillance at a significant cost to industry.

If you have had an aircraft NVIS modified in previous years and plan to install a new radio or update a piece of equipment, you may be in for a shock. When you alter a NVIS modification in any way, you must notify the NVIS OEM that provided the STC of the modification. In many cases, the NVIS OEM is required to file an Engineering Change Order (ECO) with the FAA. Here is where an issue may arise. When the FAA reviews the ECO, they do not limit their review only to the requested equipment or alteration requested. The FAA will look at the entire modification again. If the FAA determines that improvements in NVIS technology have surpassed the modification previously approved in your aircraft, the FAA will not approve the ECO. The FAA may require that an extensive update to the entire NVIS modification be made and recertified to include the new radio within the ECO request. A simple $5000 dollar upgrade may in fact cost the operator $30 - $40,000 dollars. Remember…this aircraft was airworthy before the ECO request with no FAA mandate to change or update anything. This only occurred because the operator desired to improve the equipment on the aircraft.

To be completely fair, the FAA realizes these issues exist. They are working with industry to find solutions while maintaining their primary charter…SAFETY! The oversight for NVGs falls within four branches of the FAA: 1) Certification, 2) Regulation, 3) Operations, and 4) Maintenance. Each branch reviews issues within their purview and provide orders, policy, and guidance to FAA personnel in the field dealing directly with the issues. At times, they just don’t match up. However, in many cases the FAA isn’t aware of the negative impact that has occurred in one area due to an oversight decision elsewhere. This is where industry MUST support and work with the FAA.

As an industry, we cannot stand on the sidelines and wait for the FAA to align oversight with effective, operational procedures. Essentially, it’s not their job! Industry must roll-up their sleeves and engage. In 2011, three industry organizations decided to engage the FAA on NVG issues. NightCon 2011, the civil industry’s exclusive night vision conference, was held. With more than 125 in attendance, the show was a resounding success. The FAA came out in full force and engaged industry during two panel discussions. Attendees of NightCon 2011 were able to engage FAA personnel from AFS250 (Part 135), AFS350 (Maintenance), Rotorcraft Directorate (Certification), and Regulations Division. Additionally, NVG educational courses were held providing attendees opportunities to learn about NVG related subjects to include NVG Program and Maintenance Management skills, Import and Export Laws surrounding NVGs, NVG pilot and Instructor training courses, and much, much more. NightCon 2012 is scheduled September 20th and 21st, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. The FAA forum has increased by 100% to include four panel discussions for the duration of the first day of the conference.

At the end of NightCon 2011, the FAA tasked the producers (Night Flight Concepts, ASU, and Rotorcraft Professional Magazine) to form an NVG industry-based advisory council. The intent would be to provide FAA with industry based recommendations to aid in the development of educational and policy based initiatives. The council would be made up of members from ALL mission segments within the civil industry utilizing NVGs.

On August 8th 2012, the Night Vision Advisory Council was formed. The initial meeting was hosted by FlightSafety International in Dallas, Texas. The development of the Council was announced through a press release in June 2012. More than 25 people from all segments of the industry attended with a single goal in mind; improve the safety, education, standardization and oversight of the civil NVG industry. The Council was formed with the first working meeting scheduled for NightCon 2012.  

The use of civil NVGs has proliferated into a well-established industry segment defining its own path to success. The relevance of military experience, through which the civil NVG industry began, is finding more difference than commonality in the civil use of NVGs. The fact is, the FAA and industry share a common goal; improve flight safety. It is without a doubt that safety of flight during night operations has improved due to NVGs. If this trend is to continue, we as an industry, both regulators and users, must ALL work together.

About the Author:

Randy Rowles is the VP/General Manager of the Era Training Center located in Lake Charles, LA. He is an NVG Instructor and Examiner authorized to provide the NVAG Instructor 61.195 endorsement. Randy is the Educational Coordinator for NightCon 2012. Additionally, he is the coordinator for the Night Vision Advisory Council. He may be reached at rrowles@eratrainingcenter.com.

Posted in: Opinion-Editorial

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