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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Safety Watch: Aviation Maintenance—Is My Aircraft Safe?

Keith Cianfrani

The question of whether your aircraft is safe must be answered before every flight. Do you really know if it is airworthy and if not, what do you do about it?

Maintenance has been in the public spotlight recently, and not for laudable reasons.

Back in January, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a probable cause for the March 27, 2007 crash of a Robinson Helicopter R22 at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. operated by Silver State Helicopters. It found the crash, which killed the instructor and student on board, was the result of a mechanic’s improper installation of attachment hardware for the servo-to-swashplate push-pull tube joint. This resulted in a disconnection, the board said, and a subsequent loss of control and crash.

Contributing to the crash, the safety board found, were Silver State management’s inadequate surveillance and enforcement of maintenance procedures, an excessive maintenance workload due to inadequate staffing of maintenance personnel, and the insufficient management of maintenance tasks.

Last month, the FAA accused the major air carrier Southwest Airlines of flying 46 Boeing 737s on hundreds of flights without having completed structural inspections mandated by an airworthiness directive. The violations were first discovered by the airline itself and reported by it under a voluntary-disclosure program agreement with the FAA.

That program generally exempts the reporter of the violations from enforcement actions. But the FAA argued the airline had not satisfied the program’s requirements and proposed a Accusing Southwest Airlines of serious and deliberate safety violations, federal aviation regulators proposed a $10.2 million civil penalty against Southwest.

Then on March 12, a New Zealand jury convicted the former owner of a maintenance shop and a supervising mechanic of manslaughter in the 2005 crash of a Robinson R22. The jury in Nelson High Court deliberated for nine hours before convicting former Skytech Aviation owner John Horrell and licensed aircraft maintenance engineer (or mechanic) Ronald Potts of the manslaughter of Philip Devon Heney.

Heney was killed when his R22 crashed near his home on the second flight after he picked it up following maintenance at Skytech. Investigators concluded its tail-rotor drive shaft had been assembled incorrectly during maintenance by unlicensed mechanics and Horrell and Potts failed to properly inspect the unlicensed mechanics’ work. They are to be sentenced May 2.

There are instances in which pilots fly aircraft in an unairworthy condition on their own. "Get-home-itis syndrome" is a case in point. This syndrome has killed many pilots over the years, both military and civilian. Because of the urgency to get home, some pilots decide on their own to fly aircraft that are not airworthy, without consulting mechanics or maintenance directors prior to the return flight. Many of these flights end with catastrophic results. In other cases, pilots "look the other way" when minor maintenance issues appear and continue to operate unsafe aircraft.

U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.3 states the "pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." FAR 91.7 states no person "may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition." It also states the pilot in command "is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight" and "shall discontinue the flight" when unairworthy conditions occur.

Maintenance must be done by the book, and every pilot has the responsibility to ensure the maintenance was performed in this manner. What does this mean? Most of us are neither mechanics nor maintenance experts, but we can take steps to lower the risks of maintenance errors.

So how do we ensure the aircraft we are accepting is airworthy? This begins with a good review of the logbook and discrepancy sheet. Know what the next inspection is and when it is scheduled to be performed. Look for any inconsistencies. Next, if you believe the maintenance is not what you think it should be, talk to the maintenance director and express your concerns.

You should always do a quick walk around, checking for tools or other items that may have been left on or in the aircraft. Finally, I always made it my priority to talk to the mechanics performing maintenance on my aircraft. I also would make myself available for the run-ups after the maintenance was finished to get a feel for the work just performed. Don’t be a nuisance, but let the mechanic know you are very interested in the work performed. Mechanics are not immune to making errors.

In conclusion, don’t fly the aircraft if you are not completely comfortable with its airworthiness. Don’t let the mission affect your decision-making process. Don’t compromise your safety standards. As the pilot in command, you’re ultimately responsible for the acceptance of an airworthy aircraft and its safe operation.

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