[Avionics Today 10-17-2014] As Wi-Fi networks increasingly become standard on modern aircraft, aviation maintenance personnel are finding their workloads becoming increasingly more complex. Nowhere is this more of an issue than in the business aviation world, where aviation technicians responsible for troubleshooting and clearing the airworthiness of aircraft have a much different "need to know" than their General Aviation (GA) and air transport counterparts, according to National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Maintenance Committee Chairman Jim Sparks.
Business jets can be equipped with new connectivity solutions that present new challenges for maintenance personnel, such as the Honeywell Aspire 200, which was recently STC'd for the Challenger 300, pictured here. Photo: Bombardier.
With smaller GA aircraft, there's usually not much concern with maintaining or troubleshooting high-speed data or advanced cabin management systems. And commercial airlines typically have network technicians either in-house or provided by their In-flight Wi-Fi service provider who specializes in the connectivity setup for their specific fleet. But when it comes to business aviation, private air charters and operators have a much different process, mainly relying on one technician responsible for returning their aircraft and all of its advanced technological components to service in between flight operations.
"In business aviation, technicians have a somewhat different 'need to know,'" said Sparks. "In our case when you talk about an [Airframe and/or Powerplant] A&P you speak of an all-purpose technician — meaning you have to service tires or diagnose slow Internet access. … You get into the world of the airlines [and] yes, in many cases they have the technology and they have the specialists who deal with it. They’re not necessarily A&Ps, they’re more network specialists because they don’t have to have the return to service authority that an A&P technician does."
One of the main reasons why business aviation A&P technicians are finding it difficult to deal with Wi-Fi and advanced avionics issues on modern aircraft is, according to Sparks, because the training required by civil aviation authorities has not evolved with aircraft technology over the last four decades.
"The current requirement for the need to know of A&P technicians was established by the FAA and is pretty much based on technology from the 1960s or earlier; it just has not evolved over the years," said Sparks. "There are some A&P schools, some affiliated with colleges or universities that have stepped it up where they provide more knowledge than is required. But the basic requirements for an A&P, they have not changed. If you go to an A&P school to get an A&P license that’s all you’re going to get, and you’ll have a basic understanding of ‘60s and ‘70s technology equipment."
To address that knowledge gap, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are starting to work toward evolving training standards for A&P technicians. The NBAA maintenance committee is currently pushing a program called Nextech for NextGen. This program includes a formal development component called "Project Bootstrap," which provides guidance to the FAA in revising the basic requirements for the "need to know" of an A&P technician for business aviation. The program will also look to provide a subsequent revision for Part 147 to amend the curriculums that A&P schools offer.
The second phase of the program is addressing the evolution of aircraft technology, ensuring that training programs and educational curriculums stay on top of the latest equipment updates.
Another issue the program will look to address is dealing with the aircraft wiring aspect of In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) systems.
"Aircraft wiring is always part of the equation. You've got antenna wiring that must be installed — many times it's some sort of coaxial cable — and the size is determined by the distance to the [Line-Replaceable Unit] LRU it's working for to avoid power loss," said Dusty Walker, an aircraft electrical design engineer for Conscious Systems Engineering.
Walker, who has experience working with IFC providers, agrees with Sparks about the need to evolve training requirements for business aviation maintenance technicians. He points out that airborne Wi-Fi is still a relatively new concept for the commercial and private aviation sectors and there is a lack of aviation schools giving courses on troubleshooting these systems.
"The new kid in town for me has been quadrax wiring. This isn't the standard twisted-shielded wire pair that technicians grew up with, and in some cases they have to terminate these wires at the aircraft, which is a difficult task. You don't have the luxury of sitting at a lab workbench with ample lighting and plenty of room for contacts and standard crimping tools to terminate multiple 24-gauge wires into a one-barrel cavity. And, unfortunately, if a technician mistakenly places "the green wire into cavity 2 and the green-with-the-yellow-striped wire into cavity 4 instead of vice-versa, you'll have a performance issue on your hands when testing," said Walker.
Still, there are other issues besides just wiring. There's also the issue of ensuring that the airborne IFC system performs in the same manner as it does when technicians test them out on the ground.
"IFC performance requirements need to be flexible enough to allow for design challenges and [Original Equipment Manufacturer] OEM/Regulatory Agency standards when it comes to laying out the Wi-Fi components in the airplane. If a certain cabin-mounted antenna has to be within a specified distance of a network access point, these factors have to be considered when creating the design package on a particular aircraft, as an example. Because some of this technology is new to aviation, it has to go through the process of being approved for aircraft installation, which can be time consuming," said Walker.
The Conscious Systems Engineering founder said he believes maintenance schools, Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) Organizations, and continuing education programs "will probably start interfacing more with the IFC providers to collaborate on truing programs to keep up with the growing demand for connectivity and its upkeep."
These are the types of issues that the industry guidance can provide insight about to the FAA as it revises training requirements. During a recent meeting between the FAA and NBAA Maintenance Committee, the attendees addressed Advisory Circular (AC) 65-30, which is the "FAA's definition of the aviation maintenance profession," Sparks says.
"The document was created in early 2002, but it was written about what we were back in the ‘60s. As the result of our meeting, the FAA produced a revised version of that AC and is currently seeking comments from industry," said Sparks. That comment period is open through Dec. 10, and the NBAA is looking to recommend changes to AC 65-30 that contribute to a global standard.
"It’s a worldwide problem. Most airworthiness agencies have made some changes in regulation but they have not addressed the core initiative, stating that we need to change the skill sets and the need to know of people entering this profession," said Sparks.