Maintenance mayday – screw-up or conspiracy? Opinion

Most of Australia’s general aviation aircraft fleet was on track to be effectively grounded on Thursday of this week (August 1 2013), if a “maintenance direction” signed off by CASA director John McCormick on July 4 of this year had slipped past industry scrutiny and become law.

Estimates of the number of potentially affected registered Australian aircraft vary between 75% and 98% of the entire GA fleet of aircraft classified as subject to “Class B” maintenance requirements.

The good news is that CASA is now engaged in a flurry of last-minute rewrite activity to forestall that atrocity. However people who understand the process tell us that the offending rule changes are now filed and will actually have to be amended if normal regulatory procedure is followed. Hopefully the clipboard brigade isn’t waiting in the bushes to nail some poor soul whose power plant or propeller has just run out of hours at the stroke of a Biro.

Until this weekend the almost total absence of industry protest suggested that some (but not all) industry bodies with responsibility for overseeing various sectors, had failed to pick up on this edict at all, or that if they had, they simply didn’t understand its implications.

The question of whether or not relevant CASA management understood its implications needs to be critically examined, as does the question of whether the change was deliberate in its intent, or just another blunder. The cost to both regulator and industry of leaving some individuals in positions where errors like this can recur is clearly unacceptable. 

“If you have a choice between the screw-up and a conspiracy, go for the screw-up and you’ll be right more often than you’re wrong,” says a student of such matters.

However a review or of earlier shenanigans involving small but subtle changes in the wording of regulations seems to confirm that either scenario is credible.

The existing CAO 100.5 para 9.1 and its replacement (our highlighting) read:



9.1 For the purposes of subregulation 38 (1) of the Regulations, CASA directs each person who is the holder of the certificate of registration for an Australian aircraft to comply with the requirement specified in the Airworthiness Limitation Section of the maintenance manual of the aircraft for which the person is the holder of the certificate of registration.

9.1 For subregulation 38 (1) of the Regulations, CASA directs the registered operator of an Australian aircraft to comply with the maintenance requirements for the aircraft and its aeronautical products, including life-limits, as established under the approved design for the aircraft or product.

Note:   Contravention of a CASA maintenance direction under this subsection is a strict liability offence under regulation 38 of the Regulations.

A customer’s outlook

A GA aircraft registration holder expresses the mood of those in industry who have contacted ProAviation, and points out that the directive appears to preempt the proposed new regulations: 

This appears to be a directive under CAR 38, the process that CASA can use regarding aircraft maintenance, to introduce what are to my mind some of the most objectionable features of their proposed maintenance regulations. This would have been potentially catastrophic in cost terms for GA, and there’s been no consultation, no cost/benefit analysis, anything, just the jackboot approach, and ‘to hell with the consequences.’

“It’s another example, in my opinion, of the complete lack of understanding in senior management in CASA that amounts to a disregard of long standing and satisfactory maintenance procedures, and a complete disregard for the fact that the majority of Australian registered aircraft are certified under the US FAA’s FAR 23. This assumes normal maintenance practices per the FAA’s FAR 43, and shows a complete disregard for the Australian aviation sector.

“And – it all has nothing to do with air safety.”

According to that experienced regulator-watcher and others, the immediate impacts threatened an average increase in the cost of a 100 hourly inspection on a relatively unsophisticated GA aircraft like a Cessna 172 or a Piper Cherokee, from an average of slightly under $4000 to around $18,000:

“The annual inspection under the present system is just a few dollars under $4,000. That’s pretty average for a good aeroplane, and includes AD Instrument 8, and various things like that where you have to call a specialist in to check that your transponder is calibrated right and so on. It included most of those things, because the basic inspection is about $1,500 and the rest is rectification and testing.

“But under the new arrangement, we estimated that you’d be up for around $14,000 in CAR 35 approvals to do various jobs, because they’re not covered in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual. That’s because under the system there’s no heading like “general minor repairs” and the work can only be done in accordance with the manufacturer’s maintenance manual. And if the data is not in that manual, you have to get the approved data created specifically for the job by a CAR 35 engineer.”

“The rule as written would also have invalidated most or all ‘on-condition maintenance’ and a resulting return to aircraft manufacturer-specified maximum time in service component lives. This could potentially apply to engines, propellers, starters, magnetos, generators/alternators and sundry other components, with appalling financial impact:

“A recommended overhaul life becomes a CASA operation up to (say) 2,200 hours, in charter or RPT operations. IO-540 engines in Piper Chieftains were commonly operated up to 2600 hours on life extension programs. The new directive means that’s all gone, so basically you’re doubling the overhaul cost per hour. It seems it could also wipe out AD ENG 4 which is how we run aerial work and private engines on condition; in fact it looks like it could completely wipe out the use of PMA parts.”

If it was a screw-up it was a serious one, and appears to point to excessive trust in individuals who may be lacking in product knowledge – the end product being improved air safety. Coming from an organisation that spends a lot of its time auditing other peoples’ quality assurance processes, it might be suggested that CASA would benefit from practicing on itself.

And it may not even be a conspiracy. It may simply be a byproduct of the mindset demonstrated by some in the organisation (and particularly in airworthiness) that anything that comes out of the USA is inferior or at least suspect. Without any undue respect, we invite such individuals to take on board the following commentary from the same owner/pilot:

To maintain a FAR Part 23 aircraft correctly, like other certified aircraft, it should be maintained to the regulatory requirements of the FARs. FAR Part 23 manufacturers write their maintenance manuals and other instructions to meet the requirements of the FAR regulatory system. The current and proposed regulatory system does not maintain these aircraft to the same standards. This is not what CASA produces and proposes. The CAR38 (1) direction would have overridden AD/Eng/4 & 5, AD/Prop/1 and other on-condition CASA documentation.

Doing it their way

Just have a look a FAAs FAR 43, Appendix D, the FAA annual inspection schedule — and compare it to Schedule 5.

Lo and behold, you’ll find most of Schedule 5 is exactly identical, with some minor bits of Australian content appended. This isn’t surprising, because Schedule 5 was copied from FAR 43, Appendix D.

But Schedule 5 is not what CASA says it is; it is not a “system of maintenance,” (part of the Australian input), it is an inspection schedule – and you need the data to actually carry out the tasks on the Schedule. This as been the huge mental block suffered by CASA regarding maintenance of US-built  FAR 23 light aircraft (and some other countries) -or by far the majority of aircraft on the Australian register.

The US system is delightfully simple. Where FAR 43, Schedule D is applicable, you must carry out an annual inspection, you do that using Schedule D, plus the manufacturer’s maintenance manual and the whole FAA AC library, as applicable, but particularly AC43-13A & B. The latter being the bible for the basic maintenance and repair of light aircraft.

As the manufacturer’s aircraft is certified under this FAA system, by and large the manufacturer’s MM only covers matters that are specific to the make and model of aircraft —- it is not a manual that repeats all the standard practices, techniques etc that are in the ACs, particularly AC 43-13A & B.

Then some clown here looks at the typical US MM for a light aircraft and declares it “deficient”, which it is not, in the context of how the aircraft was certified, including the manufacturer’s instructions for continuing airworthiness.

So, the proper way to comply with the aircraft certification, including (even when it is registered in Australia) instructions for continuing airworthiness, is to use Schedule 5 (except the Australian-isms) annually or every 100 hours, using the aircraft’s MM for specific details and settings, rigging etc., and using the applicable ACs for how to actually carry out the tasks.

It is the longstanding lack of understanding in Australia, as to the full ramifications of the certification of these USA built aircraft, that is deficient, not the aircraft’s MM. To make it easier, some years ago, the then “appropriate person” in CASA produced a Legislative Instrument to automatically make all FAA ACs and the equivalent from other countries, approved data for the continuing airworthiness of the relevant aircraft.

This meant that ACs didn’t, any longer have to be approved individually for each maintenance organisation. Thus, one smart bloke in CASA, with the right delegation, pulled the plug on the whole “approval” racket, including the costs, aggravation and delay inherent in almost any dealings with CASA.

His successor renewed the instrument several times. Now, under the present crew, the automatic approval of documents such as AC 43.13A & B is back to case by case approval – CASA has announced that such documents from other NAA (national airworthiness authorities) will no longer be automatically approved. What a great make-work exercise! And at what additional cost to the industry?

In context, the MMs that some people in CASA declare deficient are no such thing; it is the Australian rules for the proper processes to ensure continuing airworthiness of the kind of aircraft we are talking about here that are seriously deficient – and it will be far worse under the proposed new rules.

Worse, because it completely ignores the basic certification of the aircraft, including the instructions for continuing airworthiness, which are all part of the C.of A.

Indeed, it can be legally argued that, under the present Australian legislation, a very large number of aircraft in Australia have an invalid C.of A. This is because the manufacturer’s directions for continuing airworthiness are not being complied with, since Australian regulations do not allow compliance. While all this probably induces brain ache, it is fundamental to the problems of proper and adequate maintenance of many light aircraft in Australia.

And we still haven’t resolved the question – screw-up or conspiracy?

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About Paul Phelan

Paul Phelan flew for over 50 years in private, charter, corporate and regional aviation, worked in senior management roles with a major regional airline, and retains his license. In parallel he has been writing for Australian and international aviation journals for well over 20 years on all aspects of aviation including aircraft evaluation, flying, industry affairs, infrastructure, manufacture, regulatory affairs, safety, technologies and training. He has won three separate National Aviation Press Club awards for "best technical aviation story of the year."

2 thoughts on “Maintenance mayday – screw-up or conspiracy? Opinion

  1. Sandy Reith

    Paul’s article cogently describes another example of CASA mismanagement.

    Conspiracy or a lack of understanding? A huge blunder would be my opinion, it being apparent that the outcry from the industry would have been embarrassingly loud. However the idiocy is tinged with CASA’s generally aggressive and unhelpful stance against general aviation (GA).

    We can only hope that the incoming government can make reforms sufficient to put GA back on the road to recovery. It behoves all of us to inform our Federal MP’s about the reforms that are required. At the very least we should be asking for a change in legislation to require the regulator to have consideration for the economic health of the industry.

  2. Maxine Reid

    Re: Paul Phelan’s query screw-up or conspiracy, I would say a combination of both. There are those in CASA who do not believe that GA should exist, only airlines are worthy, coupled with what I believe is a common situation whereby if you can’t make it in GA then you can get a job with CASA. This, I would think, would make for CASA employees with large chips on their shoulders regarding GA.

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