Tribal Knowledge

You are finally done with the inspection and repairs. The aircraft is cowled, you triple check to make sure all access panels are back in place and the aircraft is ready to be delivered back to the customer tie-down area. You gather all the paperwork including your checklist and discrepancy lists, along with the logbooks. You sit down and begin to sort through the past two days of work and complete the logbooks. All parts and labor are accounted for on the work order as you complete it and finish your last cup of coffee for the day. As you finish, you mentally check off to make sure all the paperwork is complete for this job.

As you and the other mechanics wind down from the day, you chat about the last couple of days working on this aircraft. You discuss how the previous annual inspections had not caught a couple of discrepancy items that your shop routinely looks for on this model of aircraft. Your shop knows because you have seen it before and the shop foreman always reminds the crew of these items. Tribal knowledge is effective, as long as you are a member of the tribe.

You also discuss a couple of the discrepancies that you had not seen before. It was obvious what caused the concerns and they were easily repaired. One item was a little hard to discover, but your chief inspector has a lot of years and instinctively dug deeper when he noticed something out of place. By digging deeper, he found a problem that may have led to a bad day for aviation. His finding becomes more tribal knowledge, for the local tribe members.

As the day ends, the aircraft is done and tied down, the paperwork is completed and logbooks are in order and the work order is complete and placed on the boss’s desk. All is well when all is done. But is everything really done?

Improve aviation safety

Your shop is typical of the hundreds of aircraft repair shops across the country. Manned by dedicated professionals, you perform maintenance and inspection of general aviation aircraft every day. Everyone is a dedicated professional that maintains a high level of concern toward aviation safety. But many miss one of the primary opportunities to improve aviation safety to the entire general aviation community.

The missing element in this typical day of aviation safety is that the maintenance technician did not step outside his tribe with critical safety information. By submitting those items that the shop often finds and the new items found on this specific aircraft, they let the entire community know what they know.

The FAA’s Service Difficulty Reporting (SDR) system is set up to assist in this communication effort. By utilizing the SDR system, a mechanic or inspector has “an economical means to exchange service experiences and to assist the FAA in improving aeronautical product durability, reliability, and safety.” The technician has power to affect safety, to save lives, and to prevent accidents.

Many seasoned mechanics remember the predecessor to the SDR system, the Malfunction and Defect reporting system. The M&D as it was called evolved into the current SDR system. Many technicians still refer to the M&D and the M&D form (8010-4) is still accepted by the FAA. But the preferred method is through the electronic submission to the SDR system. The SDR form 8070-1 may be used to submit but most technicians electronically submit the service difficulty through the web site.

Any time maintenance personnel discover a failure of any system component or part of an aircraft, engine, propeller, or appliance fails to function in the intended manner, they should report it through the SDR system. By doing so, they are effectively “spreading the word” to the community. Also, the FAA uses the data to analyze and determine when field reports indicate that safety is in jeopardy and possible mitigating action may be required.

At major air carriers, SDR submission is often the responsibility of the quality assurance or reliability programs department or similar named department. Some operators such as air carriers, charter operators, and repair stations have regulatory requirements to report service difficulty reports to the FAA and utilize the SDR program as the method of filing the required reports. The bottom line is that data goes into one database, the SDR system.

Data-driven decisions

As the FAA implements new technology to collect and analyze data, more data-driven decisions are going to be made. Data-driven decisions depend upon data, and the SDR system is the primary data source for general aviation. The maintenance professional is part of the solution when safety issues surface with aircraft designs.

An important aspect of data-driven decision making is that it works both ways. The data can also show that a perceived problem actually has less risk than first thought. Data allows the engineer to effectively determine what the actual risk level may be rather than, in the absence of data, make an overly conservative decision to take action just to play it safe. And with sufficient data, engineers can pinpoint issues that exist in subfleets of aircraft and not the entire fleet thus reducing the number of affected aircraft. At the end of the day, sufficient data drives better decision making and a safer aviation community. The maintenance technician’s role of submitting SDRs is critical to this working properly.

Electronic database

The FAA has put the SDR system online to make it easy for maintenance personnel to participate. Electronic submission is available and the site also provides access to the SDRs in the database for review. Maintenance operations should take advantage of using the SDR database as a source for additional safety information regarding their aircraft make and modes. Simply access the web site and search on your specific make and model for SDR history. Visit the web site at:

So think outside the “tribe” and participate. Be active in sharing your knowledge and experiences, it will make general aviation much safer. Pass on your tribe’s knowledge by submitting SDRs when appropriate. Be a powerful source driving aviation safety. 

Barry Ballenger is the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate’s program manager for System Safety. He has held A&P and IA ratings for close to 40 years and remains a mechanic at heart.