After a recent helicopter accident, some old topics popped up on a number of internet forums: aircraft repairs, aircraft data plates, and salvage parts. While it remains to be seen if any previous repairs have fault in this accident, the ensuing discussions demonstrated that there is an ongoing knowledge gap in how aircraft repairs can be performed legally.
First, the use of aircraft salvage parts in aircraft repairs is perfectly legal within the FARs and is a classic example of, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” However, when it comes to data plates, there is – and has been – specific regulatory guidance on how they are made, attached, and maintained.
Unfortunately, some people are not aware of (or choose not to follow) this FAA guidance.
As such, the FAA and the OEMs have become more proactive in this area in recent times. For instance, as recently as October 2018 the FAA issued new guidance. So follow below as we continue the discussion.
BACK IN THE DAY
Prior to the 1970s, when it came time to repair an aircraft it was nothing to grab a wing here, or a tail boom there, and fix it, especially when the aircraft was an older tube-and-fabric airplane or a tube-framed helicopter. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Boeing Stearman or a Bell 47 that was 100% original, or one that had not been “repaired” from a single structural tube cluster. “Parts are parts” has a familiar ring to it.
Regardless, when it came to the aircraft data plate, the previous CARs and the current FARs state the data plate will remain attached to the original aircraft it was certified with. However, the enforcement of these rules back then was generally subjective to the local CAA/FAA offices. In most cases, if the work was documented correctly – or in a few cases not documented at all – it was no problem to get a new AWC issued on a repaired aircraft.
But things started to change when aircraft production moved toward monocoque construction and the use of honeycomb structural panels. The ability to repair individual aircraft became a bit more complex and sometimes required the use of several aircraft salvage sources. In some cases, the number of salvage aircraft parts necessary to repair the original core aircraft exceeded the number of original parts.
And when using parts from multiple aircraft, one “incentive” would surface on occasion: which aircraft data plate to use. Sometimes the data plate from the aircraft with the lowest total time was used; or, it was the data plate from the aircraft with the most complete logbooks.
While it was not legal by regulation to swap out data plates, neither was this data plate issue at the top of the CAA/FAA enforcement list. So what started the change?
Unfortunately, no matter the industry, there are individuals who play the system. Whether it’s a lack of ethical concerns or an outright disregard for flight safety issues, these crooks perform deeds strictly for a buck.
On the airplane side, there are a zillion examples. On the helicopter side, a couple instances come to mind. In one case, a person spliced extensions to a set of wooden M/R blades and sold them as serviceable. Luckily, the aircraft never flew because the mechanics could never get the M/R to track or balance on the ground. Subsequent removal of the blade paint revealed the splices.
Another case, which ended tragically, involved the purchase of a mangled helicopter that had experienced a severe M/R blade strike. The buyer, a scrap/salvage dealer, elected to part out the main transmission and sold various internal parts complete with their component log cards.
Somehow through the complex chain of custody of the aircraft after the M/R strike, none of the transmission log cards or parts were marked to show they were involved in a blade strike. Sadly, the transmission sun gear made it into another helicopter. It failed in flight and killed several people.
The moral: be sure you know who you are buying your salvage parts from. However, things didn’t change simply due to a group of con men.
SURPLUS PARTS AND DATA PLATES
Since WWII, the military has been required to dispose of surplus items, but it must “sell” the items that have economic value. Hence, the transfer of surplus aviation aircraft, components, and parts to the DRMO. While a portion of these items go to public entities, the remaining surplus is sold to the general public at excessive discounts.
Technically, products or articles produced under a military contract number are not automatically approved for installation on a type certified aircraft – even if they look, feel, smell, and act like certified parts. FAA AC 20-62 and AC 20-142 can explain this much better than I could. Suffice to say, if you follow that guidance there are methods to use military surplus parts on certified aircraft.
And just like our bad apples who peddle salvage parts, individuals who couldn’t pass up a buck started to sell surplus parts as certified parts. So, another hole in the proverbial Swiss cheese lines up to initiate change on how we repair or alter aircraft…which leaves us with the data plate debacle.
As mentioned above, any data plate required under a type certificate must remain affixed to the specific product or article for which it was certified. A past and present example:
CAR 1.50(a): Each product manufactured under the terms of a type or production certificate shall display permanently such data as may be required to show its identity.
FAR Part 45.13(e): No person may install an identification plate removed in accordance with paragraph (d)(2) of this section on any aircraft, aircraft engine, propeller, propeller blade, or propeller hub other than the one from which it was removed.
There is not much else to add. Moving data plates between airframes has never been an acceptable practice – except through an FAA-approved method like an STC.
So eventually, after several high-profile accidents, civil litigations, and enforcement actions, the OEMs and the FAA started to play hardball with these “Frankenstein” aircraft.
On the helicopter side, the OEMs seemed to jump right in. One OEM used its technical support newsletters to publish a list of aircraft serial numbers that were considered “destroyed” or “scrapped.” Subsequently, several other OEMs began listing destroyed/scrapped aircraft.
On the surplus/salvage parts side, the FAA continued to issue Advisory Circulars and Orders specifying the used part requirements for those parts installed on type certificated aircraft. Later, the FAA issued a new FAR, Part 3, that made it a regulatory offense to make intentionally false statements on aircraft parts that can be installed on a type certificated aircraft. Thus, the regulatory noose began to tighten. (As a side note, Part 3 also provided the industry with the one and only regulatory definition of “airworthy.”)
Fast forward to October 2018 when the FAA made its biggest play and issued FAA Order 8100.9, Destroyed and Scrapped Aircraft. And for those who aren’t familiar with FAA jargon, an “Order” is a FAA National Policy document.
Additionally, as the use of these guidance and regulatory documents expanded, the FAA Chief Counsel became more involved by issuing Letters of Interpretation (LOIs) as they related to data plates, destroyed aircraft, and salvage parts. For example, an LOI from 2014, Braun-American Aircraft Sales - (2014) Legal Interpretation, provides a very specific illustration of how the guidance is intended to work.
With the implementation of Part 3, the FAA LOIs, and Order 8900.19, there is now a definitive reference when it comes to using or repairing salvage aircraft and their subsequent parts. And while the Order still allows some subjective interpretation, hopefully it will also provide the means to purge those nefarious individuals whose sole purpose is to make a buck regardless of the consequences.
The repairing of aircraft with salvage/surplus parts will never go away. And should not go away. For more and more aircraft, it’s becoming the only way to source parts to keep them flying. The FAA has also realized this and issued additional guidance such as AC 23-27, providing an acceptable means to substitute certain parts and materials on these older vintage aircraft.
For the most part, a general lack of guidance and knowledge got us down this road in the first place. However, I believe with the current level of exposure and information out there on salvage/surplus parts and aircraft repairs, we can close a good portion of that knowledge gap and put the Swiss cheese back on our sandwich instead of using it as an accident investigative tool.
About the author: After 32 years maintaining helicopters in various capacities, Scott concluded a full-time career with a major operator in 2014. When not pursuing future writing projects, he can still be seen around the flight line tinkering on aircraft for beer money. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.