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.

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