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Friday, August 1, 2008

Editor’s Notebook: The Back Story

James T. McKenna

There is always far more to a news story than what makes it into print — the back story of all the intricate maneuvering and hours of negotiations, the legal and financial aspects, who may be grinding an axe, protecting a friend or pursuing a financial interest.

The challenge for us here at Rotor & Wing, and for any journalists, is to convey the heart of a story accurately without explaining every single detail of it. For the reality of presenting the news, which is what we aim to do here, is that we will never have enough space to lay out every detail of a story and, frankly, you don’t want to read every detail. Few people have the time to read that much.

We operate on the assumption that you want the most important facts. If you desire more details, you’ll seek them out or insist that we tell you more. If we do our jobs right, you’ll generally be satisfied with the news we present and how we present it.

This is brought to mind by our June Rotorcraft Report item on the FAA’s investigation into night-vision system installations by Aviation Specialties Unlimited. ASU took exception to that story. We made some mistakes in it. We published a correction to it. I recognize that a correction never fully repairs the damage of a printed error. So we also published ASU’s full critique on our Web site and in our Feedback column last month. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the many aspects of the story behind the story.

Some think our source for the June story was a lone FAA inspector who had an axe to grind against ASU. In fact, I had overheard several discussions at industry meetings on questions about night-vision system installations and how the FAA was dealing with them. I’d asked a few sources about that. Their answers staked out the general scope of the issue: Some operators had lost use of night-vision systems they’d bought; the FAA doubted whether their installations complied with regulations. A central figure in the matter was ASU.

I’ve covered aviation safety stories a long time. Companies involved in them (and the FAA) often respond to questions about them by denying the problem, defending their actions or deflecting blame. When I called Mike Atwood of ASU in mid-May to discuss this matter, he didn’t dodge a bit. He said right up front his company had had problems, that it had gotten in hot water with the FAA, and that it was committed to working with that agency and its customers to make the situation right.

A big part of the back story is Mr. Atwood. He has helped operators pioneer the use of the vital safety tool of night-vision systems. That night vision’s ability to make helicopter flight safer is established and recognized today is due in large part to his efforts. At Heli-Expo in February, even the former head of the FAA directorate charged with certification of helicopters and their systems said night-vision devices "should be the norm, not the exception" for helicopter night operations.

But the FAA has yet to standardize certification or installation of them. How an operator or vendor gets a night-vision system approved and installed on a particular helicopter depends largely on who in the agency you ask, and when. That’s been true for years. It is simply ridiculous.

It is easy to bash "the FAA." But rarely does that agency’s thousands of workers march in lockstep. A lot of them understand night vision’s potential; some fight for its use in helicopters. Others disagree, and some fight those efforts, because of sincere doubts about night vision or other reasons.

The FAA has many priorities: keeping the president and Congress happy, staying out of the headlines, riding herd on commercial airlines (which are how most Americans encounter aviation). Helicopters hardly make the list, but this industry needs night vision systems. We need the FAA to decide night vision is worth some clear certification and funding decisions.

Another part of the back story: A typical response to charges of aviation safety problems is to claim they are just paperwork discrepancies. I don’t buy that.

Paperwork is the foundation of aviation safety, like it or not. When the FAA decides the design and production of an aircraft is safe, it issues a type certificate saying so. Every aircraft should have an airworthiness certificate that asserts it matches the condition of the ones that won the type certificate. All the subsequent maintenance and modification of that aircraft — logbooks, inspection sheets, engineering changes — is intended to establish that the single aircraft continues to meet or exceed the safety standards that the type-certificated ones met.

That system has worked pretty well for decades. It is central, along with the dedication of the people who build, fly and fix aircraft, to why flying is as safe as it is.

If the paperwork is in question, the only way anyone knows whether its aircraft still meets safety standards is to physically inspect the aircraft to verify that. That is to say, if an aircraft’s paperwork is in question, its safety is in question. It doesn’t matter if you or your FAA inspector knows a single aircraft is safe; our system is built so a stranger to the aircraft can establish relatively quickly, through the paperwork, whether it complies with safety standards. Doubt it? Try selling one with incomplete records.

So the mess surrounding ASU’s night-vision installations has been a serious one. ASU recognizes that and is working hard to fix it. Its customers may fume about lost safety margin, mission capability and revenue until it’s fixed, and its competitors may gloat about its predicament. The big question, though, is whether some greater good will come from that mess, through FAA actions to end the certification confusion that helps keep night vision out of helicopters.

People tracking the situation aren’t hopeful it will. That seems to be the challenge before us: to make clear to the FAA brass and those in the White House and Congress whose backing they need that facilitating night vision in helicopters should be a priority for the agency.

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