Aircraft Accidents and Unapproved Parts

In the 1996 children’s movie, Matilda, Danny Devito plays the bumbling bully, Wormwood, who spends the entire movie scamming people out of their money with broken down cars, including the movie’s main antagonist: Trunchbull.  Wormwood’s anti-hero antics include selling Trunchbull a car with unapproved parts, a rolled back odometer and paint that conceals the rusty metal.  Wormwood’s felonious antics against Trunchbull endear him to the young audience, who approve of his resourcefulness.

However, defrauding people is a criminal offense, a felony.  In the case of unapproved parts and ‘rolling back the odometer’, fraud can lead to injury or death.  In the aviation industry, fraud is real; it is perpetrated by men and women of any age and background with a goal of making money at any cost.  Since the 1980s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been concentrating efforts to rid the aviation industry of unapproved parts that can be found on any aircraft – from helicopters to two-seat private aircraft to the largest jumbo jet.  Even the military is not exempt.  The FAA has been working hand-in-hand with Agencies, e.g. the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General (DOTOIG), to rid the industry of these parts.

The artificial parts business has become, like most illegal endeavors, an art form.  The felons work hard to conceal their handiwork, making it difficult for regulators to separate genuine parts from imitation.  The introduction of composite and 3-D printed parts have made separating bad remakes a lot harder because of normally telltale information found in, e.g. blueprints or engineering paperwork.

What is an unapproved part and how does one identify a suspected unapproved part (SUP)?

In June 2016, the FAA revised Order 8120.16 with revision ‘A’.  This Order, titled: Suspected Unapproved Parts “describes responsibilities, policies and procedures for coordinating, investigating and processing FAA SUP reports.”  This Order differentiates between SUPs and improperly maintained parts, which are ineligible for installation, yet may not be unapproved.

“The objective of the SUP program is to mitigate the potential safety threat to the aviation community posed by ‘unapproved parts’.  This program seeks to prevent unapproved parts from entering the system by aggressive and consistent investigative and corrective actions when detected.  If unapproved parts have already entered inventories, the program aims to prevent such parts from being installed on aircraft and are then purged from the system as soon as practicable.”

Per this Order, there are three different types of parts: Approved, Unapproved and SUPs.  Approved parts are eligible for installation on a type certificated product, e.g. an aircraft or aviation part; they are produced as per the requirements spelled out in Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 21: Certification Procedures for Products and Articles.  These parts and articles meet applicable standards for installation, e.g. meet manufacturer’s design and are in a condition for safe operation.

Improperly maintained parts may not be SUPs, yet they are not eligible to be installed.  They could be approved parts that have not been maintained or altered in accordance with 14 CFR part 43: Maintenance, Preventive Maintenance, Rebuilding and Alteration.

Unapproved parts do not meet the requirements of an approved part as per 14 CFR part 21.  They should not be installed on type-certificated products.  They may be counterfeit parts; they could be parts that have been sold back into the system despite exceeding their design lifetime or are improperly overhauled or manufactured.

SUPs are parts that are not clearly approved or unapproved but require further investigation.  Any one party can report a SUPs; once reported, an investigation is initiated.  The investigation can include representatives from the FAA, DOT, etc. and usually involves members of one or more Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) division, e.g. the FBI.  SUPs that turn out to be legitimate investigations could lead to any matter of enforcement, from jail time to heavy fines and confiscation of property.

A SUP investigation can take weeks to months, even years to play out.  According to the geographical limitations, many LEAs could get involved, from local police to federal investigators.  The DOTOIG handles many SUP fraud cases that involve all modes of transportation.  The regulating agencies, e.g. the FAA, assist in investigating, gathering evidence, presenting the case to a Grand Jury and testifying as subject matter experts.

Due to the seriousness of the crime(s) related to each SUP case, the consequences can range from monetary penalties for documentation fraud to years in prison plus steep fines for those cases where the fraud resulted in death.  Title 18 Part 1, Chapter 2, United States Code § 38: Fraud Involving Aircraft or Space Vehicles in Interstate or Foreign Commerce, spells out the (a) Offenses in aviation and aerospace cases.  In paragraph (b) Penalties, the punishment for engaging in parts fraud are spelled out.  Further topics relating to parts fraud are (c) Civil Remedies; (d) Criminal Forfeitures; (e) Construction with Other Law and (f) Territorial Scope.  These subparts are laws and lay out the ground rules of jurisdiction and consequences.

The subject of SUPs is a broad topic which would exceed the allowable limits of any article.  The successfully litigated cases are in the thousands; there have been many counterfeiters put out of business; they have lost their Federal Certifications for participating in parts fraud.  These cases have even put an end to the careers of Federal Agents and LEA personnel who refuse to believe that perpetrators who commit parts fraud meet the litmus test of felons or who ignored the evidence and obstructed investigations.  This being said, the true tragedy are the innocent lives put at risk or are lost due to parts fraud.

Those who commit fraud are not those likeable scamps from the movies; these are businesses that destroy lives without any empathy.  LEA has become very good at prosecuting these fraud cases.  As long as there are professionals in agencies, e.g. the FAA, with the real-world experience to assist LEAs, these cases can continue to stay on target and, hopefully, one day, give law enforcement one less thing to worry about.

Aircraft Accidents and the Path of Training

Your descent into Chicago is flawless with unlimited visibility; your co-pilot glances up from approach procedures to observe the clear skies.  Gentle winds blow out of the southwest as your A320 descends through thirteen-thousand feet.  The Willis Tower stands out in the skyline, reflecting the sunlight behind you from the east.  No worries; both you and your copilot relax noticeably, yet cautiously, because you know it’s coming.  This flight has been too perfect.

Without warning visibility drops to ten yards; the cockpit goes dark.  As you break through the clouds, you look down and notice Lake Michigan has now been worked up into a froth.  Alarms and warnings begin a disorganized orchestration of emergency alerts just before all hydraulics are lost and the number one engine catches fire.  It is imperative that you get on the ground safely right away.

Ain’t technology wonderful?

The Inflight Full-Motion Simulator you’re ‘flying’ in is a work of genius.  It’s not a toy or a video game; believe me, I cartwheeled a wide body while attempting Hong Kong (HKG) airport’s western approach and it scared me silly.  In the old days, a simulator was a crate the size of an air conditioner where the pilot sat while others ‘simulated’ motion by rocking the box.  Today, the inflight full-motion simulator represents the path proper training has been evolving to for decades.  Variations of high technology simulators exist to test emergency procedures for many industries, e.g. air traffic control and nuclear power plants.

Why the training works is because it puts workgroups into the mix … RIGHT NOW!  The ability to immerse a team of pilots, engineers or controllers into a life or death situation tests, not only the students’ mettle as a team, but the procedures in place to confront the situation.

Teamwork is not something you can teach; it has to be experienced, faced and acted upon.  Each person must know their place in an emergency, either giving or following orders.  For instance, the success of US Air 1549, the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, was not due to one man’s actions; Captain Chesley Sullenberger gave the orders; together he and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles landed the plane safely … as a team, whose faith in the other’s abilities was unquestionable.

With aviation, when an accident aircraft’s flight data recorder is ‘read’, the investigators ‘fly’ the simulator to find out what could have been accomplished differently.  The ability to study the conditions leading up to the accident and programming what the accident crew worked through prior to impact.  The benefits to training flight crews, who may face similar conditions, are priceless.

Technology should be designed to continue increasing communications, providing workgroups with the skills to rely on each other’s strengths to succeed.  This need transcends the cockpit or control tower; it is how successful groups of all types are taught – to draw from each other’s experience and strength to teach, even in a classroom setting.

In this case, why is training moving backwards? 

The trend these days is to cut costs, no matter what the damage to success.  Universities, government agencies and private industry are sacrificing quality in how they train their people, preferring to save money, getting rid of the brick and mortar facilities.  On the way out are the stand-up instructors who engaged the classroom with experience, who prompted other students to share their experiences during lessons, cultivated discussions that enabled a clearer understanding of the lesson’s material.  This support can not be underestimated; students need community.  The classroom is a place not only for sharing experiences, but a chance to network, find and build communities that can be tapped in the future.

The training appears to be headed toward a virtual classroom, one where a button pushed replaces a raised hand.  It is impossible to spark conversation or discussion when the rest of the class is accessible only by a lighted panel, them being hundreds of miles away.  The stand-up instructors no longer engage the students in dialogue, but are just talking heads reading from a script.

It is nearly impossible to put a dollar value on what happens when a way of training disappears forever.  The path training is taking may end up costing more than the monetary savings; it may cost us in broken or lost lives.  Either way, we will continue to erode whatever social fabric we have, as yet, retained, completing the cycle to make us a socially inept society.  Just like social media has replaced family conversation, virtual instruction will further isolate us from each other, just when we need to rely on each other the most.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XV: LAX02GA201 and DEN02GA074

This month’s Lessons Unlearned concerns two separate accidents that occurred within a month of each other; they were almost identical in cause; the two aircraft involved were also from the same operator.  There were many factors about these two accidents that should have been tackled in 2002; unfortunately, these accidents never received the attention they deserved.

LAX02GA201: On June 17, 2002, a Lockheed C-130A, N130HP, crashed while performing a fire retardant delivery run to extinguish a forest blaze; the accident happened near Walker, California.  The left wing separated moments before the right wing, itself, separated from the fuselage; the aircraft spiraled counter-clockwise into the terrain, the crew receiving fatal injuries.

DEN02GA074: On July 18, 2002, a Consolidated-Vultee P4Y-2, N7620C, crashed while performing a fire retardant delivery run to extinguish a forest blaze; the accident happened near Estes Park, Colorado.  The left wing separated, resulting in a counter-clockwise spiral into the terrain, the crew receiving fatal injuries.

Both aircraft belonged to Hawkins and Powers (H&P) and were operating as Public Use, contracted to the Department of the Interior (DOI) to provide aircraft, pilots, firefighting services, etc.  Because of the Public Use status, the maintenance programs were approved under different requirements than most Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) air operators, e.g. Part 121 or 135, with more robust maintenance programs.  Both aircraft were manufactured decades earlier; the C-130A was manufactured in 1957 and the P4Y-2 was rolled out in 1945.

Public Use Aircraft are (by the 1998 definition used at the time), “per Section 40102 (a) (37) of Title 49 of the United States Code (B) does not include a government-owned aircraft – –

  1. Transporting property for commercial purposes; or
  2. Transporting passengers other than – –
  3. Transporting (for other than commercial purposes) crewmembers or other person aboard the aircraft whose presence is required to perform, or is associated with the performance of, a governmental function, such as firefighting, search and rescue … geological resource management.

An aircraft described … to be a public aircraft for the purposes of this part without regard to whether the aircraft is operated by a unit of government on behalf of another unit of government, pursuant to a cost reimbursement agreement [i.e. contract] between such units of government, if the unit of government on whose behalf the operation is conducted certifies to the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the operation was necessary to respond to a significant and imminent threat to life and property (including natural resources) and that no service by a private operator was reasonably available to meet the threat.”

At the time of the accident, Public Use aircraft, as described in this definition, were contracted to perform functions for local and federal government agencies that government could not perform itself, e.g. provide firefighting services on an as-needed basis.  The DOI could not provide firefighting assistance to its Forestry Department because they were not equipped, e.g. no aircraft, pilots, mechanics and firefighters.  Air Operators, such as H&P, on the other hand, had the means to provide the service, under contract.

The issue with this was that H&P’s maintenance program was not as robust as a 14 CFR Part 121 or Part 135, ten or more operator, that usually employed a Continuous Aircraft Maintenance Program.  All H&P’s aircraft were under an Approved Aircraft Inspection Program (AAIP); though approved, the program lacked the inspection attention demanded of large aircraft.  H&P’s accident aircraft were manufactured for the military and before the first Maintenance Steering Group (MSG) in 1968; the continuous inspection programs were improvised by H&P with engineering assistance.

Why is this important?  The MSG program introduced maintenance manufacturers’ procedures that would be modified with the changing industry, e.g. digital technologies or composites.  From MSG-1 through MSG-3, the maintenance programs reflected the findings of accidents previously investigated; one in particular was Aloha 243, accident number AAR/89-03.  In this accident, the crown of a B737-200 tore away in flight from the forward bulkhead to the wing due to failures in corrosion and metal stress inspections available at the time.  On November 29, 1993, FAA Order 8300.12 introduced requirements for all commercial operators to create a corrosion prevention and control program (CPCP) for each of their fleet aircraft, including aircraft manufactured before MSG-1, e.g. DC-8.

H&P’s aircraft, while flying under the public use umbrella, were not required to have a CPCP.  The accident aircraft were manufactured much earlier – the C-130A (1957) and P4Y-2 (1945) – for the military, who does not subscribe to most FAA rules.  H&P’s maintenance programs were built for each aircraft they used, mostly military surplus, and, at the time of the accidents, did not employ a CPCP.  Air Operators, e.g. 14 CFR part 121 and 135, ten or more, as part of their aging aircraft inspections, incorporated many structural inspections following the Aloha 243 accident; they fine-tuned or increased the scope of those programs after the introduction of FAA Order 8300.12.

The H&P C-130A was videoed executing its final run, just before the wings departed and well into its impact; the P4Y-2 was photographed with the missing left wing.  It is probable that, if not recorded, the investigation may have missed the stress cracks or corrosion that contributed to the two accidents in the post-crash fire, especially the C-130A, since a double wing departure would have been considered highly unlikely. Furthermore, firefighting accidents would not have demanded the attention of a full National Transportation Safety Board major investigation, which would include structural engineering experts.

There is not an aircraft manufacturer committed to designing and building firefighting aircraft; the limited need does not encourage the investment.  H&P, and other air operators like them, do not have the financial means to be limited customers for a late model firefighting fleet; the contracts they have do not generate enough money to upgrade.  Additionally, the US government cannot invest in non-military aircraft for specifically performing firefighting, nor can it provide the start-up procedures necessary for such an air operation.

Instead, operators, like H&P, must rely on a maintenance workforce who are jacks-of-all-trades; from sheet metal repairs to avionics, from hydraulics to windshield repairs, for aircraft fleets that are no longer manufactured and have no spare parts.

These two-accident aircraft were part of a fleet of former military aircraft.  The P4Y-2 was a World War II Pacific Theater bomber, whose purpose was to drop heavy ordinance loads.  With fire retardant tank modifications, the bombers became new types of bombers.  For the military, the C-130A slid equipment out the rear ‘ramp’ door, ‘dropping’ heavy payloads during straight low-level runs.  Neither aircraft was designed to perform under the extreme aerodynamic forces experienced in firefighting.  The aircraft would fly into a low lying area, drop the extinguisher and pull up hard to escape; these aerodynamic stresses were not designed into these aircraft decades prior.  In addition, intense heat and temperature variants exposed the structure to further punishment while making their runs.

These days, B747 and DC-10 aircraft are being modified to conduct similar firefighting feats.  Again, the former commercial aircraft, although certified with the necessary CPCP modifications, were never designed to perform these types of maneuvers.  Even though the former commercial aircraft are better designed, they are still being used outside their element.

Accidents such as these, because they are of a certain operation, ‘fly under the FAA’s radar’.  The firefighter operators did not modify their maintenance programs to include, e.g. CPCP.  In addition, the operators did not receive much needed surveillance since their contracts require them to be anywhere, but at their home base.  Many red flags were ignored; many opportunities were missed.