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Dear FAA

Dear FAA,

I am writing to you from the comfy confines of my pandemic-imposed quarantine-like shutdown, and like many Americans, I have gotten a fair number of things done around my house that needed doing or that I was told needed doing, or that I was told that I wanted to need to do. But I digress.

Doing these things made me realize that there are some housekeeping items that you should have addressed while airlines around the world were basically grounded. In fact, much of general aviation wasn’t flying much either, so you wasted a lot of good opportunity, which is almost as bad as wasting my tax dollars.

In the event that the world shuts down again, please consider using the following as a To Do list:

Clean the runways. Runways everywhere are covered with discarded rubber from tires, and these black patches are slicker than ice when they get wet. Speaking of ice, when that rubber gets snow and ice on it, slick doesn’t even begin to describe what one must deal with. The severe decrease in traffic is a great time to get the rubber cleaning equipment out of the garage and put it to use, so chop chop.

Fix the lights. There are, I’m guessing, millions of lights on and around airports. Runway lights, taxi way lights, approach lights, sign lights, and probably lights I’m not even aware of. Some of them I’m not aware of because they are burned out. I have yet to figure out when lights need to be fixed, but it must be some formula I don’t understand, because some are always (it seems) notam’ed out of service. With fewer airplanes to avoid, this would be a grand time to get all the lights working again. Even the Motel 6 leaves the lights on for people.

Paint! There is no better time than during an aviation-grounding pandemic to whip out some brushes and rollers and start painting taxi lines, runway stripes, lead-in lines, hold-short lines, taxiway markers, spot numbers and anything else that has paint in, on it, or with it. I’m going to cut you some slack on this one, because paint is hard to stay on top of, especially since it needs time to dry. It fades in the sun, gets scraped by plows, runover by vehicles large and small, and pounded by rain and even lightning. But, too many airports have too many lines that are too hard to see, especially at night and in the rain, and this really needs to be fixed, pronto.

This list could keep you busy for a while, so consider this a good starting point, but not necessarily an end point. Pilots everywhere will be grateful and less likely to get lost on one of your aerodromes.

Many thanks, and peace out,
Chip—Chip Wright

It’s About Time!

I just added ADS-B Out to my airplane. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time—48 years to be exact.

Air Facts (May 1970)

Air Facts (May 1970)
click image to read article

It was 48 years ago that my very first aviation article was published. Its title was “The Role of Computers in Air Traffic Control.” I was 26 years old at the time, not long out of college, and starting a career in computer software at the dawn of the computer age. I’d only been a pilot for five years and an aircraft owner for two.

I timidly submitted the 3,000-word manuscript to Leighton Collins (1903-1995), the dean of general aviation journalists (and Richard Collins’ dad). Leighton founded his magazine Air Facts in 1938, the first GA magazine to focus primarily on safety. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Leighton became a pioneer in using GA airplanes to fly IFR, something that was considered risky business at the time. In 1970, I was a newly-minted CFII and Skylane owner, and Leighton was my hero and Air Facts my bible.

Leighton loved my article, and published it in the May 1970 issue of Air Facts.  I was thrilled. I was also hooked and went on to write more than 500 published aviation articles between then and now.

How big is the sky?

I’d been instrument-rated for about four years when I wrote that article, and had thought quite a bit about the differences between VFR and IFR flying:

A pilot flying VFR in clear weather is unlikely to see more than a few other aircraft on a typical flight; to him the sky seems to be a rather empty place. Yet to the pilot stuck in an IFR hold with an estimated-further-clearance time forty-five minutes away, the sky seems to be an order of magnitude more crowded. Why? Clearly there is no shortage of airspace; every VFR pilot knows that. The aircraft flying under IFR have the best equipment and the most proficient pilots aboard. Where does the congestion come from?

My conclusion was that the fundamental difference between VFR and IFR lies in who is separating aircraft. VFR pilots are responsible for their own separation, while IFR pilots rely on air traffic controllers to keep them separated from other traffic. Thus, I reasoned, the comparatively low capacity of the IFR system must be attributable to some failing on the part of controllers. Yet as someone who has spent many hours visiting ATC facilities and observing controllers at work while plugged in beside them, I can testify that these folks are amazingly sharp, skilled, and well-trained professionals who do their jobs exceptionally well.

So why can’t these hotshot controllers separate IFR aircraft nearly as efficiently as VFR pilots are able to separate themselves? My conclusion was that the very nature of the separation task is fundamentally different:

A pilot is concerned solely with the one aircraft that he’s flying, but a controller must keep track of several aircraft at once. Give a person several things to do at once—even simple things like head-patting and tummy-rubbing—and his performance in each task drops sharply. Keeping track of a high-speed airplane is considerably harder than either head-patting or tummy rubbing. Keeping track of a dozen such airplanes travelling in random directions at random altitudes is simply beyond the capabilities of any human.

Our IFR system is designed to simplify the controller’s job to the point that it is within the realm of human capability. It does this primarily by eliminating the amount of randomness the controller must deal with. It strings airplanes along a few well-defined airways/SIDs/STARs, confines them to a few standard altitudes, and sometimes slows them down to a few standard speeds. Doing these things makes the airplanes much easier for the controller to keep track of and keep separated, but it also wastes most of the available airspace and reduces the capacity of the system.

Do we really need ATC?

It seemed to me that the capacity of the IFR system could be vastly increased if we could just stop relying on controllers to separate airplanes and enable pilots to self-separate, much as they do when flying VFR. In 1970 when I wrote the article, we were right on the cusp of two major technological breakthroughs that I believed had the potential to make that possible.

GPS ConstellationOne of them was the promise of accurate satellite navigation. The Naval Research Laboratory had launched its Timation satellites in 1967 and 1969, the first ones to contain accurate atomic clocks suitable for navigation. Meantime, the Air Force’s Space and Missile System Organization was testing its more advanced system (codenamed Project 621B) for aircraft positioning between 1968 and 1971. These were the progenitors of today’s GPS system—something I could see coming in 1970, although a seriously underestimated how long it would take to become operational. The first constellation of 10 “Block-I” GPS satellites wasn’t in orbit until 1985, and the system’s full operational capability wasn’t announced until 1995.

MicroprocessorThe second breakthrough was large-scale integration (LSI)—the creation of integrated circuits containing tens of thousands of transistors on a single silicon chip—and the emergence of the microprocessor. Microprocessors weren’t yet invented in 1970 when I wrote the article, but as a computer scientist (my day job at the time) I could see them coming, too. As it turned out, Intel introduced its 4004 microprocessor in 1971, its 8008 in 1972, and the 8080 (which really put microprocessors on the map) in 1974. This watershed development made it feasible to equip even small GA airplanes with serious computing power.

The ATC system of tomorrow

Traffic DisplayIn my 1970 Air Facts article, I painted a picture of the kind of ATC system these new technologies—GPS and microcomputers—would make possible. I postulated a system in which all IFR aircraft and most VFR aircraft were equipped with a miniaturized GPS receiver that continually calculated the aircraft’s precise position and a transmitter that broadcast the aircraft’s coordinates once per second. A network of ground stations would receive these digital position reports, pass them to ATC, and rebroadcast them to all aircraft in the vicinity. A microcomputer aboard each aircraft would receive these digital position reports, compare their coordinates with the position of the host aircraft, evaluate which aircraft are potential threats, and display the position, altitude and track of those threat aircraft on a cockpit display.

Such a cockpit display would enable IFR pilots separate themselves from other aircraft, much as VFR pilots have always done. It would permit them to fly whatever random routes, altitudes and speeds they choose, giving them access to the same “big sky” that VFR pilots have always enjoyed.

I theorized that pilots are highly incentivized to self-separate and would do a much better job of it than what ground-based air traffic controllers can do. (Just imagine what driving your car would be like if you weren’t allowed to self-separate from other vehicles, and instead had to obtain clearances and follow instructions from some centralized traffic manager.)

What took so long?

NextGen controllerWhen I re-read that 1970 article today, it’s truly eerie just how closely the “ATC system of the future” I postulated then resembles the FAA’s “Next Generation Air Transportation System” (NextGen) that the FAA started working on in 2007 and plans to have fully operational in 2025. Key elements of NextGen include GPS navigation and ADS-B—almost precisely as I envisioned them in 1970.

I was wildly overoptimistic in my prediction that such a system could be developed in as little as five years. If the FAA does succeed in getting NextGen fully operational by 2025, it will be the 55th anniversary of my Air Facts article.

NextGen also includes improved pilot/controller communication (both textual and VOIP) and various improvements designed to allow use of more airspace and random routes. Sadly, it stops well short of transferring responsibility for separating IFR aircraft from ATC to pilots as I proposed in 1970—although our aircraft will have the necessary equipment to do that if the FAA would just let us. Maybe that’ll have to wait another five decades until NextNextGen is deployed (and there’s an autonomous self-piloting octocopter in every garage).

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

The Shameful Lycoming Rod Bushing AD Affair

In late July, as tens of thousands of GA aircraft owners were converging on Oshkosh for AirVenture 2017, Lycoming published Mandatory Service Bulletin 632 titled “Identification of Connecting Rods with Non-Conforming Small End Bushings.” This was a very nasty service bulletin affecting Lycoming engines of all models that were built, rebuilt, overhauled or repaired during the past two years. Lycoming quickly published two revisions (632A and 632B) in rapid succession.

SB 632B addressed a problem with small-end connecting rod bushings (part number LW-13923) that were used in Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines and shipped by Lycoming to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and November 2016. It turns out that there was a quality assurance problem with these bushings, and many of them had an outside diameter that did not conform with specifications. These bushings are pressed into the small end of Lycoming connecting rod assemblies using a hydraulic press. If the bushings are too small in diameter, the press-fit isn’t secure and the bushings can migrate out of the connecting rod when in service. That’s exactly what seems to have happened to a relatively small percentage of these non-conforming bushings, hence the mandatory service bulletin.

Lycoming Rod Bushings: Good vs Bad

Lycoming rod bushings.

Lycoming used these bushings in-house to build connecting rod assemblies, some of which were sold to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and February 2017, and most of which went into Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines. Any engine that has these non-conforming bushings, whether built by the factory or overhauled or repaired in the field, are affected by SB 632B.

Why is SB 632B so nasty?

SB 632B requires that all engines that might possibly contain these non-conforming bushings have all their cylinders removed within the next 10 hours. With the cylinders removed, the securing of all small-end connecting rod bushings then must be tested using a special tool (“ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool”) to apply a calibrated force to each bushing to see if it can be displaced. If the bushing moves during this press-out test, then the connecting rod assembly must be removed from the engine and sent to Lycoming, and a new connecting rod assembly with a known-good bushing must be installed. Lycoming initially estimated that the press-out test will have approximately a 20% flunk rate, but from what we’ve been hearing that estimate may turn out to be way too optimistic.

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

As someone deeply involved in piston GA maintenance, I find what SB 632B requires to be a horrifying prospect. The requirement to remove all cylinders within 10 hours is bad enough; there is a long history of catastrophic engine failure after removal and replacement of all cylinders in the field that I’ve written about extensively. But the prospect of having 20% or 30% or 40% of the connecting rods removed and replaced in the field represents a far greater risk, because the majority of mechanics have never before performed this operation (notably tightening rod bolts to a specified stretch using a special micrometer). The rod bolts are the most highly-stressed component in the entire engine, and tightening them properly is ultra-critical. In my opinion and the opinion of every highly experienced A&P/IA I’ve spoken with, this is NOT work that should be attempted by line mechanics in the field working on engines mounted in airplanes. It really should be done only by an experienced technician in an engine shop with the engine mounted on a stand with unencumbered access.

In short, I quickly concluded that that the cure called for by Lycoming would very likely be worse than the disease, and that it’s likely that there may be more catastrophic engine failures caused by maintenance errors in performing SB 632B than would be caused by the migrating bushing problem that SB 632B addresses. After conferring with a few very experienced A&P/IAs who have much more experience maintaining Lycoming engines than I do, I also concluded that there is a far less invasive and risky and expensive method that would effectively detect bushing migration and mitigate the safety risk without creating a bigger one in the process.

Owner organizations respond

While in Oshkosh, I spoke to several Lycoming executives who indicated that they expected the FAA’s New York Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) to start the wheels in motion to issue an emergency Airworthiness Directive the following week that would mandate compliance with SB 632B. I then sought out AOPA’s David Oord, with whom I’d recently worked so successfully on dealing with the Continental camshaft gear issue. Dave and I discussed that the FAA had not issued an Airworthiness Concern Sheet (ACS) about this Lycoming bushing issue in order to solicit input from the affected aircraft owner associations, something they had promised to do when we met with the FAA Engine and Propeller Directorate at a GA engine summit meeting in 2015. Dave and I agreed that it would be appropriate for AOPA to ask the FAA to do that so we would have a reasonable time to research this issue and provide the FAA with a thoughtful response before their AD process began, and Dave promised he’d make some calls as soon as he returned to his office.

On Tuesday, Dave phoned to tell me that that he’d heard back from the FAA, and that they said they would not be able to issue an ACS because they considered the issue too time-critical. Dave pressed for input to the process from the aircraft owner community, and the FAA agreed to try to set up a conference call between aircraft owner representatives, key FAA personnel, and representatives of Lycoming. That sounded better than nothing.

The next morning, I was awakened by another phone call from Dave, who told me that the FAA was willing to do a conference call, but it had to be TODAY. Yikes! We identified several other qualified aircraft owner representatives to be on the call to represent Cessna and Piper owners, and all agreed to participate.

The call was scheduled for 3 pm Eastern. I spent two hours drafting a bullet-point document containing our questions, concerns, and proposed alternative solution to SB 632B, and emailed it to Dave, who sent it to all the participants expected to be on the call from the FAA, Lycoming, and the owner associations.

Stonewalled!

The conference call took place as scheduled and lasted for an hour. However, Lycoming declined to answer ANY of the questions we posed to them, telling us that the information was proprietary and Lycoming was sharing it solely with the FAA and no one else.

Lycoming would not tell us how many displaced bushings have been found, how many connecting rod failures had occurred due to bushing displacement, what the distribution of engine times was when bushing displacement was detected or connecting rod failure occurred. They would not tell us how many engines they expected to be affected. They would not even tell us how much the special ST-531 press-out tool would cost, or how soon they could get enough of these tools out in the field to perform the required test.

The FAA would not tell us, either, saying that they were not permitted to release any of this information without Lycoming’s permission (which clearly was not forthcoming). We spent the better part of an hour asking questions but got no answers. It was absolutely exasperating.

We spent the rest of the time on the call trying to convince Lycoming and the FAA that there was a far less invasive and risky and costly way to deal with the displaced bushing problem, and we described it to them in detail. But it became clear that Lycoming and the FAA had already decided that SB 632B was necessary, despite the maintenance-induced failure risk, and that they were not interested in considering any alternatives.

As the call concluded, I felt totally disgusted with the total lack of cooperation exhibited by Lycoming and the FAA. I have been involved in working with the FAA on numerous Airworthiness Directives during the past two decades, and this was unquestionably the most unreasonable performance I’ve seen.

Shameful and disturbing

On Thursday, we worked with Dave to create a formal joint letter to the head of the FAA’s New York ACO. In it, we expressed our disappointment in how the FAA seemed to be dealing with this issue, and included the bullet-point document I’d created outlining our questions, concerns, and recommended alternative to SB 632B. In the letter, we specifically asked the FAA to approve our proposed minimally-invasive alternative as an Alternate Means of Compliance (AMOC) as outlined at the end of the document.

Needless to say, the New York ACO convened a Corrective Action Review Board (CARB) that rubber-stamped Lycoming’s requested corrective action in record-breaking time. On August 9, the FAA issued AD 2017-16-11 mandating compliance with SB 632B and putting numerous Lycoming-powered GA aircraft on the ground and their owners in jeopardy both moneywise and (IMHO) safetywise.

I find this whole sorry episode very disturbing for several reasons.

In discussing this situation with companies like Rick Romans and Aircraft Specialties Services and Zephyr Aircraft Engines who are in the business of re-bushing Lycoming connecting rods in the field, it appears that the problem with these loose Lycoming connecting rod bushings has been well-known by industry insiders for more than a year. Several of those firms told me that they stopped installing Lycoming-supplied rod bushings many months ago in favor of PMA-equivalent bushings from Superior Air Parts that fit properly. Given that this problem has been known for quite some time, it seems to me that the FAA could and should have taken a bit more time to solicit and consider input from folks who would be most affected, especially alternative methods of addressing the problem in a less risky fashion, before publishing an emergency AD.

Furthermore, I find it unconscionable for the FAA to justify such a draconian rulemaking action on data that it refuses to disclose to the very people who will bear the burden of that rulemaking. I understand that if a manufacturer provides information to the FAA that the manufacturer identifies as proprietary, the FAA is not permitted to disclose it. But it seems to me that the FAA should be forbidden from using such proprietary data to justify issuing an AD. The federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) guarantees that members of the public who will be affected by federal rulemaking shall have a say in the rulemaking process. I’m not a lawyer, but clearly rulemaking made in the kind of secret “star chamber” fashion that characterized AD 2017-16-11 makes a mockery of the spirit (and perhaps the letter) of the APA.

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

Wonderful news for Continental 520/550 owners!

Mandatory Service Bulletin MSB05-8B (camshaft gear) downgraded to non-mandatory. FAA will not issue AD.

In April, my blog post “Continental’s War on Camshaft Gears” I wrote about Continental Motors’ issuance of Mandatory Service Bulletin MSB05-8B intended to compel owners of Continental 520- and 550-series engines (and a few IO-470s) to preemptively replace the older-style camshaft gears with a newer-style gear that is .060” thicker (about the thickness of a penny).

MSB05-8B would have mandated that engines with the older-style gear would need to be disassembled and the new-style gear installed “within 100-hours of operation, at the next engine overhaul (not to exceed 12 years engine time in service), or whenever camshaft gear is accessible, whichever occurs first.” This would have meant that many thousands of low-time-since-overhaul engines would need to be torn down within 100 hours, and that any engine overhauled more than 12 years ago would need to be torn down before further flight.

Owners push back

When MSB05-8B hit the streets, aviation type club forums were awash with cries of disbelief, expletives, and demands for class-action lawsuits—both against Continental Motors and against the overhaul shops that elected to overhaul engines without installing the new-style camshaft gears. The uncertainty also took its toll on the resale market for Continental-powered aircraft.

My company Savvy Aviation joined a group of stakeholder representatives including AOPA, American Bonanza Society, Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, and Twin Cessna Flyer. Our group prepared a 10-page response to the FAA on this subject that was submitted to the FAA Engine & Propeller Directorate and to the Atlanta Aircraft Certification Office on May 1. We argued forcefully that the extremely low crankshaft gear failure rate did not rise to the level of “an unsafe condition” required to justify the issuance of an AD.

May and June passed with no word from Continental. Then in early July, AOPA’s Dave Oord emailed the members of our group to say that Continental was about to issue the long-awaited revised MSB and had asked to discuss it with us prior to publication. We were surprised and delighted that Continental was reaching out to us, and agreed to an electronic meeting on July 13th.

Can we talk?

Continental told us that they were planning to release a new MSB05-8C the next day, calling for repetitive visual inspections of older-style camshaft gears at every annual or 100-hour inspection (whichever was applicable to the aircraft), with gear replacement mandated at the next overhaul or case-splitting event. We learned that the FAA and Continental had uncovered only seven documented camshaft gear failures from 1964 to the present, the majority of which were unrelated to any in-flight engine anomalies. We also learned that an estimated 26,000 engines would be affected by the MSB.

Alarmingly, this was issued as a Mandatory Service Bulletin (MSB), which Continental defines as one that “has been incorporated in whole or in part into an Airworthiness Directive (AD) issued by the FAA or have been issued at the direction of the FAA by the manufacturer requiring compliance with an already-issued AD.” It was conspicuously NOT issued as a Critical Service Bulletin (CSB), which Continental defines to be a “candidate for incorporation into an FAA Airworthiness Directive.”

We made a strong appeal for Continental to issue its revision as a CSB rather than an MSB, given that the FAA had not yet decided whether an AD was warranted. We also urged the FAA to think carefully about whether such a tiny number of gear failures over such a long time period (most of which had no safety consequences) really rose to the level of “an unsafe condition” under the FAA’s guidelines for when an AD should be issued. We further argued that the repetitive inspections Continental was proposing would be staggeringly costly to owners and would not prevent a single engine failure.

To put all this in perspective, there has been only ONE in-flight camshaft gear failure in the past 53 years, and that one resulted in an uneventful on-airport forced landing. This makes the camshaft gear arguably the most reliable and least failure-prone component of the engine.

Wonderful news!

The next day, July 14th, each of us individually received a call from Continental Vice President Emmanuel Davidson, who gave us wonderful news: After carefully considering our comments and conducting further discussions with the FAA, Continental had decided to issue its revision as a non-mandatory CSB, and the FAA had decided that no AD was warranted at this time.

This was a marvelous outcome for owners of Continental-powered aircraft, and it was achieved through the most constructive and cooperative interaction I’ve ever seen between owners, a manufacturer, and the FAA (and I’ve been doing this for a long time). I sincerely hope this will become a model for how such situations are dealt with going forward. Kudos to Continental and the FAA for listening with open minds, and ultimately doing the right thing.

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

Yes, that’s FAA Administrator Michael Huerta…

AOPA President Mark Baker (left) shows FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (center) the AOPA Sweepstakes 172.

AOPA President Mark Baker (left) shows FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (center) the AOPA Sweepstakes 172.

…checking out your AOPA Sweepstakes 172 in progress at Yingling Aviation in Wichita.

Huerta was in town for a meeting at the Wichita Aero Club. He announced June 6 that the agency will give $500 to the first 20,000 owners of single-engine piston aircraft who equip for ADS-B under a rebate program to be launched in the fall. (You can read more details about that program here.)

AOPA President Mark Baker showed Huerta our sweepstakes airplane, a Cessna 172N that is undergoing a Yingling Ascend transformation. The airplane looks a little scruffy on the outside, because it isn’t painted. Appearances are deceiving, though. For example, the airplane already has:

  • new flight controls and cables
  • new brakes
  • new tires
  • a new 180-hp Lycoming engine to replace the original 160-hp engine (and you’ll be able to read about the STC from Air Plains in the August issue of AOPA Pilot)
  • new Sensenich propeller (but no spinner as yet–that’s being polished)

Those are just a few of the enhancements. I’ll be detailing more in the weeks to come, in this blog and in the pages of AOPA Pilot.

The AOPA Sweepstakes 172 will be on display at the AOPA tent at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. You won’t want to miss it!

Learn more about how you could win a Cessna 172 in the AOPA 172 Sweepstakes.

See & Avoid Doesn’t Work

Contemplate the worst scenario that might confront a pilot during a flight. What comes to mind? Fire? Flight control failure? Engine failure? Perhaps it’s flight crew incapacitation, explosive decompression or severe structural damage.

No doubt about it, those all fall into the Very Bad Day category. But there’s one that can be even worse: a mid-air collision. That’s because it can involve all the problems listed above — at the same time. And since the parties involved aren’t aware of the impending crunch until it’s too late, the mid-air is usually accompanied by a violent element of surprise, confusion, and initial denial.

You might think fatal mid-airs are rare events, and from a purely statistical standpoint I’d have to agree. According to the 2010 Nall Report, a fatal mid-air occurs about once every 8 million flight hours. Think of it as the roughly the same odds as winning the lottery or being struck by lighting. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A typical GA pilot might accumulate but thousand or so hours over a full lifetime of flying.

So what’s there to worry about? Plenty. The “big sky” theory may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up very well under close scrutiny. It’s true that the navigable atmosphere over the United States alone is massive — about 20 million cubic miles — and there are relatively few airplanes in the sky. Even on those occasions where a collision is possible, modern tools such as radar, TCAS, VHF communication, and anywhere between two and four sets of eyeballs almost always succeed in averting the disaster. If aircraft were equally distributed throughout the atmosphere, the “big sky” idea would be pretty comforting.

But airplanes cluster near airports, large cities, and on thin slices of the sky known as “airways”. For the VFR types, airspace and terrain often crowd planes into small swaths of the air in places like the Santa Ana Canyon or Banning Pass. The sky is much like the ground: vehicles stick to relatively confined spaces and that makes collisions a serious hazard.

Since we’re on the topic of statistics, let me give you a few of my own: I personally know two people who have been struck by lightning, and a winning lottery ticket was recently sold not 300 feet from my front door. Hey, crazy stuff happens. But unlike lighting strikes and golden tickets, we’re not all facing the same odds. The risk profile varies widely depending on the type of flying you’re doing.

For example, flight instruction is frequently a factor; thirty-seven percent of mid-airs occur with a CFI on board. Many instructional flights happen near airports, and as previously mentioned, that’s where other airplanes tend to congregate. On the other hand, if you fly airliners, your risk of a mid-air is rather low because the aircraft itself is large and easy to see, you’re always flying IFR, and the most sophisticated traffic avoidance hardware available is always installed. Airliners also spend most of their time in cruise and are in constant radar contact with ATC.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself.  This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself. This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Some very talented, capable, and well-respected pilots have been involved in mid-air collisions. I know a guy who was involved in one while flying a large-cabin, TCAS-equipped business jet under Instrument Flight Rules. Alan Klapmeier, the founder of Cirrus Aircraft, was in one too. Richard Collins, famed Flying columnist, was in a mid-air. Speaking of Flying, the recent Editor-in-Chief owns a very nice Cirrus SR-22 which was in a mid-air. And lastly, a decade ago I was in a mid-air collision myself.

I’ll save the blow-by-blow (no pun intended) on that for another day. The point I’m trying to make is that the odds of a mid-air are probably greater than you think, especially if you live in a populated metropolitan area and fly VFR. If you’ve ever had a close encounter with another airplane in flight, you were only separated from “those who have” by nothing more than a miniscule sliver of plain old luck.

Think about that for a moment.

This may be hard to believe, but there is some good news. For one thing, mid-airs are not always fatal. It seems intuitive that most collisions would involve fatalities, but all the people I cited above survived, including (obviously) myself. Also, technology is rapidly advancing, from cheap TCAD boxes to airframe parachutes to super-bright LED exterior lighting.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we avoid ending up in a mid-air, fatal or otherwise. If you refer to official guidance from the FAA, the answer is to simply look out the window and spot the other airplane before it hits you. This technique, referred to as “see and avoid”, is still considered adequate for preventing collisions. Here are a couple of passages from Chapter 1 of the Airplane Flying Handbook:

The “See and Avoid” concept relies on knowledge of the limitations of the human eye, and the use of proper visual scanning techniques to help compensate for these limitations. The importance of, and the proper techniques for, visual scanning should be taught to a student pilot at the very beginning of flight training.

Proper clearing procedures, combined with proper visual scanning techniques, are the most
effective strategy for collision avoidance.

Other FAA publications, ranging from the Aeronautical Information Manual, to Advisory Circulars like AC-90-48 (“Pilot’s Role in Collision Avoidance”) will give you the same spiel: “see and avoid will keep you safe”. And it will! Until it doesn’t.

From my perspective as someone who’s been in a mid-air and who was using proper clearing and scanning techniques at the time, I take it as gospel that “see & avoid” won’t always do the trick. I’m just one guy, of course. But many others — some institutional in nature — just happen to agree with me.

For example, a couple of years ago Canada’s Transportation Safety Board issued an accident report on a mid-air collision between a Beech V-35B Bonanza and a PA-28 Cherokee over northern Virginia. Canada was tasked with performing the investigation because the pilots of the Bonanza were employees of the NTSB while the Cherokee was piloted by an employee of the FAA.

I won’t keep you in suspense. The conclusion from the TSB was that the “see and avoid” concept was inadequate. They even quoted a 1991 report produced by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which provides an overview of the major factors that limit the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle in preventing mid-air collisions, as well as a 2005 scientific study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine which came to the same conclusions.

The main points:

  • Cockpit workload and other factors reduce the time that pilots spend in traffic scans, and even when pilots are looking out, there is no guarantee that other aircraft will be sighted.
  • Visual scanning involves moving the eyes in order to bring successive areas of the visual field onto the small area of sharp vision in the center of the eye. The process is frequently unsystematic and may leave large areas of the field of view unsearched.
  • A thorough, systematic search is not a solution as in most cases it would take an impractical amount of time.
  • The physical limitations of the human eye are such that even the most careful search does not guarantee that traffic will be sighted.
  • The pilot’s functional visual field contracts under conditions of stress or increased workload. The resulting ‘tunnel vision’ reduces the chance that an approaching aircraft will be seen in peripheral vision.
  • The human visual system is better at detecting moving targets than stationary targets, yet in most cases, an aircraft on a collision course appears as a stationary target in the pilot’s visual field.
  • An approaching aircraft, in many cases, presents a very small visual angle until a short time before impact.
  • Complex backgrounds such as ground features or clouds hamper the identification of aircraft via a visual effect known as ‘contour interaction’. This occurs when background contours interact with the form of the aircraft, producing a less distinct image.
  • Even when an approaching aircraft has been sighted, there is no guarantee that evasive action will be successful.
  • Because of its many limitations, the see-and-avoid concept should not be expected to fulfill a significant role in future air traffic systems.
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada aviation investigation report A06O0206 identified that there is a high risk of mid-air collisions in congested airspace when aircraft are not alerted to the presence of other aircraft and rely solely on the see‑and-avoid principle.

There’s one more area of the TSB report which is worth of quotation. In it, they reference a British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions. If you’re keeping score, that’s the third sovereign agency to reach the conclusion that “see and avoid” is inadequate. Yet our own FAA, which oversees about 80% of the world’s aircraft and almost all of the high traffic density airspace, still officially proclaims that one can look out the window and see everything that needs to be seen.

This accident has demonstrated yet again that relying solely on the see-and-avoid principle to avoid collisions between aircraft operating under visual flight rules (VFR) in congested airspace is inadequate.

A number of international studies have addressed the overall issue of the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle, as well as the risks of collision associated with this principle. All acknowledged the underlying physiological limitations at play and that, when mid-air collisions occur, “failure to see-and-avoid is due almost entirely to the failure to see.”

One study stated that “our data suggest that the relatively low (though unacceptable) rate of mid-air collisions in general aviation aircraft not equipped with TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] is as much a function of the ‘big sky’ as it is of effective visual scanning.”

A British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions, which were deemed to be random, found that the probability of conflict is proportional to the square of the traffic density, and recommended avoiding altitude restrictions that concentrate traffic.

Measures such as improving aircraft conspicuity, pilot scanning techniques, and pilot traffic awareness can reduce risks, but they do not overcome the underlying physiological limitations that create the residual risk associated with a see-and-avoid method.

It’s obvious that “see and avoid” cannot, by itself, ensure our safety. If it could, there’d be no need for TCAS or most of our controlled airspace (both of which came about because of high-profile mid-air collisions, I might add!). I’m not necessarily in favor of mandating any additional equipment, airspace, or restrictions, especially on general aviation. But it’s clear that serious changes are needed in how collision avoidance is taught, especially as it concerns “see and avoid”. The concept has serious limitations which must be understood so the pilot-in-command can make educated decisions about how — or even if — they want to mitigate those risks.

I sincerely hope our nation’s regulatory and safety organizations will eventually acknowledge what we all know to be true: “see and avoid”, while a good start and certainly a vital part of collision avoidance, is simply not sufficient to ensure traffic separation.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

ATC and pilots: When to keep your mouth shut and when to speak up

This sounds a bit pathetic, but most of the professional pilots I’ve known in my life have been smart alecks, me included … always ready with an opinion, whether anyone asked for it or not. We’re all control freaks to some degree I suppose, not an earth-shattering revelation of course, because those are the kind of people you want around when it’s time to grab the controls and say, “I’ve got it.”

Sometimes knowing when not to grab the microphone in the cockpit though, can be just as important, especially for me when it comes to ATC at least. I spent a decade of my aviation life in a control tower and behind a radar scope, which was just enough to qualify me – by my standards of course – as an expert.

MSN

Madison Wi (MSN)

Case in point to grabbing that microphone occurred at Madison, Wis., a few weeks ago with a student in the Cirrus. We were VFR in right traffic for Runway 31 and requesting multiple “option approaches,” the ones that leave it to us to decide whether we’ll make a full stop, stop and go, low approach, or whatever might be left. The long runway, 18-36, was closed for construction and some itinerant traffic was using Runway 3-21. BTW, tower assigned us Runway 31 which I did wonder about with traffic on Runway 3, but then since every controller runs their traffic patterns a little differently I thought no more about it.

After the third or fourth option approach, the tower cleared us to land on Runway 31, but never explained why. On touch down, I simply forgot and told the student “let’s go” and he added full power and reduced the flap setting. As soon as we broke ground the “cleared to land” part flashed in my mind. Maybe 100 feet in the air, the local controller in MSN tower firmly reminds me that when he says cleared to land, he means cleared to land. I really tried not to respond, but of course I did, “Sorry about that. My fault. But 18/36 is closed right?” as in, so what was the real problem other than my failure to follow orders. I honestly didn’t know. Someone in the tower keyed the mic as if they were going to say something and then decided against it. We landed about 15 minutes later and the ground controller reminded me that I had earlier been cleared to land on Runway 31 and that they really need me to follow instructions in the future. Of course you know I keyed the microphone and asked again what the issue was other than blowing the order … “Did I conflict with some other aircraft?” “No, but you were cleared to land, not for an option,” he said. Since the other pilot was becoming uncomfortable with the exchange I just said, “Roger. Thanks,” and let it go. After all, I did blow it. I just would have liked to have known a bit more, but I decided to just let it go.

ENW

Kenosha Wi. (ENW)

Jump ahead a month or so and I’m again acting as CFI in the traffic pattern at Kenosha, Wis., this time having watched the other pilot I’m flying with land out of a really nicely handled circling instrument approach. We decide to stay in the VFR traffic pattern for a bit so the controller in the tower – obviously working both tower and ground himself – taxies us to Runway 7 Left. As we taxi, I hear him chatting with a Citabria pilot he’s sending to Runway 7 Right. About now I became occupied watching my pilot prepare for another takeoff.

Some part of my brain must have heard the tower clear the Citabria for takeoff from the right runway with a left turn out, just before he cleared us from the left runway, but it remained one of those distant notes in my brain until we were about 200 feet in the air. That’s when I saw the taildragger cutting across our path from the right. I instinctively told the pilot I was flying with to head right behind the Citabria as the ENW controller mentioned him as “traffic ahead and to our right.” He was a lot more than that. If we hadn’t turned, it would have been close.

The pilot flying with me looked at me in wonderment as I just shook my head and keyed the microphone … “nice tower.” No response.

I rang the tower manager a few days later on the phone because I wanted him to know how close I thought we would have been had we not banked right after takeoff. I told him I thought the ENW tower controller just plum forgot about the taildragger off the right when he cleared us for takeoff. I got it. It happens. I just wanted to see if I’d missed something here too.

Sad to say but the tower manager at Kenosha never rang back. This is where it becomes tough for me. Should I ring the tower manager again and risk sounding like a know-it-all? I make mistakes too. What do you think? Let me know at [email protected].

Where is my DeLorean?

Back to the futureThirty years ago, Marty McFly and Doc Brown got into a garage-modified DeLorean, activated the flux capacitor, and took off for…well, this year, to try and save Marty’s son from himself. Back to the Future played on a long-standing wish: flying cars.

As 2015 winds down, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t have flying cars. The easy answer is that the FAA would make such a dream a bureaucratic nightmare. That’s undoubtedly true, and if you throw in the Federal Highway Administration, you can see how such a great idea would be dead on arrival. But let’s take those two entities out of the equation.

Driving is two-dimensional. You move forward, backward, left, and right. Driving is also pretty easy. It’s not totally skillless or brainless, but we’ve done everything we can to make it so. Still, tens of thousands of people die every year on the highways in spite of some pretty impressive safety mechanisms and rules. Seatbelts are required (and their use is enforced, which wasn’t always the case); cars have roll cages, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and more. Still, no matter how idiot-proof we make a car, we manage to find ways to crash.

Flying, on the other hand, is three-dimensional, and that transition to and from the ground is, statistically, the most dangerous part of the flight. In the air, we have to deal with turbulence, even close to the ground. Imagine semis trying to fly next to a Camry. Unlike the DeLorean, we need to accept that a flying car will have wings, and those wings will be sized based on the payload. Semis and Camrys would be at constant risk of hitting each other because of the necessarily long wings on the semi, not to mention the wake turbulence. If you think on- and off-ramps are crowded now, imagine what it would be like trying to merge such disparately sized vehicles on and off the ground.

Infrastructure would be an issue as well, as we’d have to have much longer merge lanes to allow vehicles to get up to rotation speed. Consider that highways are designed to try to contain certain elements of a high-speed wreck (even if the only design element for this is building it in an isolated area). With skyways, we’d have to take into account that an in-flight collision would spread debris over a much larger area—which would necessitate additional safety enhancements for the drivers not only traveling quickly but now also falling to the ground. Buildings would need to be built to account for potential falling debris on the roof or through the windows.

In the end, flying cars just aren’t practical. In fact, if the skyways got too crowded, you’d be better back on the road, which is right where we are now. As fun as it is to daydream about defying gravity in every aspect of our lives, the truth is that without a quantum leap in strong, lightweight materials and powerful engines, it’s just not the way. But if you stick with flying airplanes, then where you’re going, you still don’t need roads.—Chip Wright

Is Your Aircraft Okay to Fly?

Who decides whether or not your aircraft is airworthy?

Airworthy steampEarlier this year, I wrote an article titled “Fix It Now…Or Fix It Later” that was published in a major general aviation magazine. The article discussed how to deal with aircraft mechanical problems that arise during trips away from home base. It offered specific advice about how pilots and aircraft owners can decide whether a particular aircraft issue needs to be addressed before further flight or whether it can safely wait until the aircraft gets back home. I considered the advice I offered in this article to be non-controversial and commonsense.

I was surprised when I received an angry 700-word email from a very experienced A&P/IA—I’ll call him “Damian” (not his real name)—condemning my article and accusing me of professional malfeasance in advising owners to act irresponsibly and violate various FARs. Damian’s critique started out like this:

After reading Mike Busch’s commentary “Fix It Now … Or Fix It Later,” I must take exception to most, if not all, the points made in his column. I believe his statements are misleading as to the operation of certified aircraft, to the point of being irresponsible for an A&P to suggest or imply that it’s up to the owner/operator whether or not to fly an aircraft with a known discrepancy. The FARs are quite clear on this matter, and there have been numerous certificate action levied on pilots who have operated aircraft with known discrepancies.

Damian went on to state that the FARs require that any aircraft discrepancy, no matter how minor, must be corrected and the aircraft approved for return to service “by persons authorized under FAR 43.7 (typically the holder of a mechanic certificate).” He went on to explain that the owner/operator may only approve for return to service those preventive maintenance items listed in FAR Part 43 Appendix A. He went on:

It should be noted that the FAA does not take into consideration the inconvenience or cost related to addressing a known discrepancy. Nor is it up to the owner/operator to determine the significance of a discrepancy as the FARs do not confer this discretion privilege to the owner/operator.

Damian’s attack on my article continued at great length, making it quite clear that his believe is that pilots and aircraft owners are mere “appliance operators” in the eyes of the FAA, and that only certificated mechanics are empowered to evaluate the airworthiness of an aircraft and determine whether or not it is legal and safe to fly. He ended his diatribe by saying:

I hope that others in the aviation community such as FAA Airworthiness Safety Inspectorss and aviation legal professionals weigh in on this commentary. I believe all will agree that this commentary is misleading and uninformed to the point of being irresponsible even to publish. At the very least, pilots that follows the advice of Busch’s commentary should enroll in the AOPA Pilot Protection Services plan because they’re likely to need it!

Whew! Strong stuff! If Damian is right, then the FAA had better lock me up and throw away the key. Fortunately for me, I believe he isn’t and (at least so far) they haven’t.

Where Damian Has It Wrong

Damian and I do agree on at least one thing: FAR 91.7 does indeed say quite unequivocally that it is a violation to fly an unairworthy aircraft, and that if the aircraft becomes unairworthy in flight, the PIC is obligated to discontinue the flight. I would never suggest for a moment that any pilot fly a known-unairworthy aircraft, at least without a ferry permit. That’s a no-brainer.

The much more difficult question is: Exactly how does the PIC decide whether or not an aircraft is airworthy or unairworthy, and therefore whether he is or isn’t allowed to fly it? On this question, Damian and I part company. In fact, his view and mine seem to be diametrically opposite.

Damian’s view is that almost any aircraft discrepancy requires the involvement of an A&P mechanic to evaluate and clear the discrepancy and approve the aircraft for return to service. I see absolutely nothing in the FARs to support such a position, particularly when it comes to non-commercial aircraft operated under Part 91.

To begin with, the basic airworthiness rule (FAR 91.7) is crystal clear about who is responsible for determining whether or not the aircraft may be flown. It says:

The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight.

The regulation places the burden squarely on the shoulders of the PIC. I don’t see anything there about A&Ps or repair stations having to be involved, do you?

Looking a bit deeper into the FARs, I can find only three circumstances under which a mechanic is required to get involved in making any sort of airworthiness determination on a Part 91 aircraft used for non-commercial purposes:

  1. Exactly once a year, FAR 91.409 requires that an annual inspection be performed by an A&P/IA or a Repair Station. But the other 364 days of the year, it’s the PIC who determines whether the aircraft is airworthy.
  2. When an Airworthiness Directive or Airworthiness Limitation becomes due, FAR 91.403 requires that a mechanic must certify that the AD or AL has been complied with (with rare exceptions where the PIC may do so).
  3. When an owner actually hires a mechanic to perform maintenance on an aircraft, in which case the mechanic is required to document his work and sign it off to testify that the work was performed properly. Note, however, that the mechanic’s signature in the logbook entry does NOT signify that the aircraft is airworthy, only that THE WORK PERFORMED by the mechanic was done in an airworthy fashion.

This third point is one that is frequently misunderstood by mechanics and owners alike. When I teach this stuff at IA renewal seminars, the hypothetical example I often use to illustrate this important point involves an owner who takes his aircraft to a mechanic for repair. The mechanic immediately observes that the aircraft has two obvious discrepancies: the right main landing gear tire is flat, and the left wing is missing. The owner asks the mechanic to fix the flat tire. The mechanic does so, makes a logbook entry describing the work he did on the right main landing gear, and signs it. His signature denotes only that the work he did (fixing the flat tire) was done properly. When the owner picks up the aircraft, the mechanic tells the owner, “I couldn’t help but notice that your left wing is missing. If you’ll permit me to offer you a word of friendly advice, I would not attempt to fly the aircraft until that issue is resolved.” But the missing left wing does not prevent the mechanic from signing the logbook entry. In fact, the mechanic is required by regulation to sign the logbook entry, regardless of whether the aircraft is airworthy or not. The mechanic’s signature addresses only the work performed by the mechanic, and nothing else.

The PIC’s Burden

If you’re on a trip and some aircraft discrepancy occurs – assuming the aircraft isn’t in the midst of its annual inspection and there’s no AD involved – it is up to you as PIC to determine whether or not that discrepancy makes the aircraft unairworthy or not. If you decide that it does, then you can’t fly the airplane until the airworthiness issue is rectified (and that might require hiring an A&P). On the other hand, if you decide that the discrepancy doesn’t rise to the level of making the aircraft unairworthy, then you’re free to fly home and deal with the issue later.

Under the FARs, it’s totally the PIC’s call. There’s no regulatory obligation for the PIC to consult a mechanic when making such airworthiness determinations. Having said that, however, it would certainly be a wise thing to do if you feel uncomfortable about making the decision yourself. It’s your call.

The FARs provide considerable help to the PIC in making such airworthiness determinations. FAR 91.213(d) describes a specific algorithm for deciding whether or not it’s okay to fly an airplane with various items of inoperative equipment. FAR 91.207 says that it’s okay to fly an aircraft with an inoperative ELT to a place where it can be repaired or replaced, no ferry permit required. FAR 91.209 says that position lights needn’t be working if you’re flying during daylight hours. And so on.

If your experience is anything like mine, what most of us call “squawks” are common occurrences, but the majority of them don’t rise to the level of being airworthiness items that cause us (in our capacity as PIC) to conclude that a fix is required before further flight. Even if you do encounter a genuine airworthiness problem – say a flat tire or dead battery or bad mag drop – that still doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to get a mechanic involved. The FARs provide (in Part 43 Appendix A) a list of roughly three dozen items that a pilot-rated owner or operator is permitted to perform and sign off on his own recognizance (without getting an A&P involved).

If you have a flat tire, for example, you (as a pilot-rated owner) are permitted to repair or replace it yourself. If you have a dead battery, you can charge it, service it, or even replace it. If you have a bad mag drop, the most common cause is a defective or fouled spark plug, and you’re permitted to remove, clean, gap, and replace spark plugs yourself. You are also allowed to make repairs and patches to fairings, cowlings, fabric (on fabric-covered aircraft), upholstery and interior furnishings. You can replace side windows, seat belts, hoses, fuel lines, landing and position lamps, filters, seats, safety wire, cotter pins, and more. You can even remove and install tray-mounted avionics from your panel.

Now, you might well prefer to hire an A&P to do some of these things rather than do them yourself, especially when on the road, far from your hangar and toolbox. I know I certainly would, and I’m an A&P myself. But Damian’s contention that you are compelled by the FARs to place your aircraft in the hands of an A&P any time any sort of discrepancy arises is simply not supported by the regulations.

Contrary to what Damian and many of his A&P colleagues may believe, the FAR’s place the responsibility for determining the airworthiness of the aircraft squarely on the PIC, except for once a year when an IA is required to make an airworthiness determination after performing an annual inspection

My colleague Mac McClellan pointed out to me that this closely resembles how the FAA determines whether a pilot is “airworthy.” One day every year or two or five, we pilots are required by regulation to go get an examination from an Aviation Medical Examiner who pronounces us medically fit to fly, or not. The remaining 364 or 729 or 1,824 days in between, the FAA expects us to self-certify that we’re medically fit. “Can you imagine,” Mac asked me rhetorically, “if we had to go to see an AME every time we got a sore throat or runny nose?”

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

The Back Door is Locked

Cessna 210In my AOPA Opinion Leaders Blog post of September 2014 (“Backdoor Rulemaking?”), I discussed the unprecedented action taken by the Cessna Aircraft Company intended to compel the owners of cantilever-wing Cessna 210s to perform repetitive eddy-current inspections of their wing spars. Finally, I can fill you in on the punch line.

By way of background: Normally, if an aircraft manufacturer believes that an unsafe condition exists that justifies imposing special inspections, component life limits, replacement or overhaul times, or similar burdens on aircraft owners, they go to the FAA and ask for an Airworthiness Directive (AD) to be issued. If the FAA is persuaded that the alleged unsafe condition actually constitutes a significant safety concern and that the burden on owners is reasonable given the safety risk, then the FAA issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemkaing (NPRM) announcing its intention to issue an AD and soliciting comments on the proposal from the affected public. The FAA is then required to consider and respond to all public comments submitted during the comment period before issuing its final rule that makes the AD effective. This same notice-and-comment protocol is required of all executive-branch regulatory agencies of the U.S. federal government by a law called the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Indeed, that’s precisely what Cessna did in 2013: It asked the FAA’s Wichita Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) to issue an AD mandating repetitive eddy-current inspections on all cantilever-wing Cessna 210s. But to Cessna’s chagrin, the Wichita ACO turned down Cessna’s request and declined to proceed with an AD, presumably because the ACO was not persuaded that such an AD was justified.

That should have been the end of the matter. But it wasn’t.

In February 2014, Cessna very quietly published a revision to the Cessna 210 service manual that added three new pages to the manual. Those three pages constituted a new section 2B to the manual, titled “Airworthiness Limitations,” that called for the repetitive eddy-current spar inspections. Somehow Cessna persuaded the Wichita ACO to approve this amendment—something the ACO really shouldn’t have done, as you shall see.

Cessna then publicly took the position that compliance with the repetitive eddy-current spar inspections was compulsory because those inspections were now part of an FAA-approved Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS). Indeed, FAR 91.403(c) compels aircraft owners to comply with mandatory replacement times, inspection intervals, and related procedures specified in an ALS. And FAR 43.16 compels maintenance personnel to perform any inspections or maintenance specified in an ALS precisely “by the book.”

David vs. Goliath?

SlingshotI first learned about this at the beginning of September 2014, when my colleague Paul New—owner of Tennessee Aircraft Services, Inc. (a well-known Cessna Piston Aircraft Service Center) and honored by the FAA in 2007 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year—discovered the new section 2B in the Cessna 210 service manual, and immediately realized its significance. Paul and I discussed the matter at length, and both felt strongly that Cessna’s actions could not be allowed to go unchallenged.

“If Cessna gets away with this,” I told Paul, “then any manufacturer will be able to effectively impose their own ADs whenever they want, bypassing the notice-and-comment protocol and the other safeguards built into the APA to protect the public from unreasonable government regulation.”

I helped Paul draft a letter to the Rulemaking Division (AGC-200) of the FAA’s Office of General Counsel, questioning the retroactive enforceability of Cessna’s newly minted ALS against Cessna 210s that were manufactured prior to the date the ALS was published (i.e., all of them, given that Cessna 210 production ceased in 1986). Our letter questioned whether Cessna could do what it was trying to do (i.e., make the eddy-current inspections compulsory) within the confines of the APA. We asked AGC-200 to issue a formal Letter of Interpretation (LOI) of the thorny regulatory issues that Cessna’s unprecedented actions raised.

And then we waited. And waited.

AGC-200 initially advised us that they had a four-month backlog of prior requests before they would be able to respond to our request. In fact, it took seven months. It turns out that our letter questioning the enforceability of Cessna’s ALS opened a messy can of worms. AGC-200 assigned two attorneys to draft the FAA’s response, and they wound up having to coordinate with AFS-300 (Flight Standards Maintenance Division), AIR-100 (Aircraft Certification Division), ACE-100 (Small Airplane Directorate), and of course ACE-115W (Wichita Aircraft Certification Office) who mistakenly approved Cessna’s ALS in the first place.

FAA Legal Does the Right Thing

FAA Headquarters

FAA Headquarters
800 Independence Ave.
Washington DC

Finally, on May 21, 2015, AGC-200 issued the Letter of Interpretation (LOI) that we requested. It was five pages long, and was everything we hoped it would be and more. It slammed shut the “rulemaking backdoor” that Cessna had been attempting to use to bypass the AD process, locked it once and for all, threw away the key, and squirted epoxy glue in the lock for good measure. You can read the entire LOI in all its lawyerly glory, but here’s the CliffsNotes version of the letter’s key bullet points:

  • Under FAR 21.31(c), an ALS is part of an aircraft’s type design.
  • The only version of an ALS that is mandatory is the version that was included in the particular aircraft’s type design at the time it was manufactured.
  • Absent an AD or other FAA rule that would make the new replacement times and inspection intervals retroactive, Cessna’s “after-added” ALS is not mandatory for persons who operate or maintain the Model 210 aircraft, the design and production of which predate the new ALS addition. The “requirements” set forth in the ALS would only be mandatory for aircraft manufactured after the ALS was issued. And of course, production of the Cessna 210 ceased in 1986.
  • If operational regulations were interpreted as imposing an obligation on operators and maintenance providers to comply with the latest revision of a manufacturer’s document, manufacturers could unilaterally impose regulatory burdens on operators of existing aircraft. This would be legally objectionable in that the FAA does not have legal authority to delegate its rulemaking authority to manufacturers. Furthermore, “substantive rules” can be adopted only in accordance with the rulemaking section of the APA (5 U.S.C. § 553) which does not grant rulemaking authority to manufacturers. To comply with these statutory obligations, the FAA would have to engage in its own rulemaking to mandate the manufacturer’s document, as it does when it issues ADs.

The bottom line is this: Manufacturers of certificated aircraft* are not permitted to impose regulatory burdens on aircraft owners by changing the rules in the middle of the game. Only the FAA may do that, and only through proper rulemaking action that complies with the APA (including its notice-and-comment provisions and other safeguards). If you ever encounter a situation where the manufacturer of your aircraft tries to do this, call their cards—the FAA lawyers will back you up.

*NOTE: The rules are completely different for S-LSAs.  The manufacturers of S-LSAs can do pretty much anything they like, and their word is the law. (A seriously flawed situation IMHO.)

The LOI concluded with the following surprising paragraph:

On February 19, 2015, the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate sent a letter to Cessna that addressed some of the above issues, and pointed out the non-mandatory nature of the after-added ALS for the Model 210 aircraft. The FAA asked Cessna to republish the replacement times and inspections as recommendations that are encouraged, but optional, for those in-service aircraft, unless later mandated by an AD. To date [three months later –mb] Cessna has not provided a written response outlining its position on this matter.

Are we having fun yet?

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).
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