Are Service Bulletins Mandatory?

In the May issue of AMT, Rodger Holmstrom, a retired FAA inspector, mentioned that debate is good. Engaging in a friendly debate makes us think about the regulations. Well, this month I want to continue a debate that Rodger started with me a few years ago on the subject of service bulletins.

This debate started a few years back. It was early 2001 and I was in Mobile, AL, attending an IA renewal seminar Rodger was giving. That evening we were sitting in a burger joint sharing war stories about our adventures (and some of our misadventures) as aircraft mechanics. All of a sudden I saw a strange look in his eyes (what I now know is the “I’m getting ready to stir it up” look). I had only been with the magazine for a few months, and Rodger wanted to pick my brain a little. So he took a sip of his coffee and asked me, “OK Joe, here’s a pop quiz for you. Are service bulletins or service instructions mandatory?”

I hate pop quizzes, and I had a suspicion he was setting me up. But I decided to play along and responded as I’m sure most of you would have, “Yes, if they are incorporated into an FAA Airworthiness Directive. I’ll take an A on that quiz, thank you very much.”

I saw a smile on his face and knew I had fallen for his setup. I could already feel the hook being set and him starting to reel me in. Of course, he was ready with a follow-up question. “What about mandatory service bulletins?”

“Ditto” I replied.

“What if I said you were wrong?” Rodger said. “What if I told you that they may be mandatory in some cases, even if they are not incorporated in an AD.”

“That goes contrary to everything I have ever heard concerning service bulletins,” I replied. “Did the waitress drop something in your coffee?” I jokingly asked.

Rodger said that he was not under the influence of any drugs. He explained it this way. Mechanics are required to use the manufacturer’s maintenance manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) when performing maintenance (FAR 43.13). So, if that maintenance manual or ICA states that compliance with its service bulletins and service instructions is mandatory, that would make them mandatory regardless of whether or not an AD is issued.

We went back and forth on the topic. We kind of ended up agreeing to disagree, and I walked away sticking to my guns believing that service bulletins and service instructions are only mandatory when they are part of an AD.

The NTSB weighs in

A recent NTSB ruling has got me thinking about the whole topic all over again. The board’s ruling has added some weight behind Rodger’s argument on whether or not service bulletins are mandatory.

The ruling I am referring to is NTSB Order No. EA-5221. This ruling was served on May 4, 2006. In it, the NTSB seems to set precedence that service bulletins can be mandatory even if they are not addressed in an AD.

The NTSB ruled on the case of Marion C. Blakey, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration (Complainant) vs. Therol Wayne Law (Respondent). Law is a mechanic who had his certificate suspended for 180 days by the FAA. The case involves an incident where Law performed an overhaul on a Textron Lycoming engine and approved it for return to service. The FAA contends that Law violated several regulations, and bases its certificate revocation on these multiple violations.

But there is one violation that the FAA charged him with that addresses service instructions. In that case, the FAA states that Law ordered a non-certificated employee to perform a magnetic particle inspection of the engine’s crankshaft.

So, you may be asking right about now, “What does having a non-certified mechanic perform a magnetic particle inspection have to do with service instructions?”

Well, Lycoming addresses NDT personnel requirements in a service instruction. Textron Lycoming Service Instruction No. 1285B (May 23, 1997) requires that “[p]ersonnel performing Magnetic Particle Inspection shall be qualified and certified in accordance with ASNT Personnel Qualification SNT-TC-1A or MIL-STD-410.” The FAA argument in Law’s case was that since the employee he ordered to perform the test was not qualified and certified in accordance with either standard, that employee was not authorized to perform that inspection.

In his defense, Law argued that mechanics are not required to comply with manufacturer’s service bulletins, instructions, or letters in the absence of an Airworthiness Directive mandating such compliance. Sound familiar?

The NTSB did not buy Law’s argument. The NTSB said, “We do not find this argument persuasive. While compliance with service instructions or service bulletins may not be mandatory in the absence of an Airworthiness Directive, a manufacturer may legitimately incorporate service publications into their manual by reference.” The board concluded that the Lycoming overhaul manual incorporates all future service instructions by reference. The board referenced the Lycoming overhaul manual where it says “In addition to this manual and subsequent revisions, additional overhaul and repair information is published in the form of service bulletins and service instructions. The information contained in these service bulletins and service instructions is an integral part of, and is to be used in conjunction with, the information contained in this overhaul manual.”

What’s ironic is that most mechanics and FAA inspectors alike still contend that service bulletins and service instructions are not mandatory. In fact, just this past March, I was at an IA renewal seminar in Nashville, TN. The FAA inspector in front of the crowd asked, “Are service bulletins mandatory?” The reply from the attendees was the same as mine, and was verified by the FAA inspector “Yes,” he said, “If they are referenced in an AD.”

Well, the recent NTSB ruling seems to back Rodger’s stand on service bulletin compliance. So I called him up and as soon as he answered the phone, I asked, “Are manufacturer’s service bulletins mandatory?” He knew it was me, and he got right to the point and gave me a clear as mud answer. “It depends. Some are, some aren’t,” he said.

I brought him up to speed on the NTSB ruling and the reason for my call. He took advantage of the opportunity to once again prove his point. He said that if the manufacturer mandates compliance with service bulletins or service instructions in its maintenance manual or instructions for continued airworthiness, then those become mandatory. The problem is that there is no consistency. Each manufacturer’s manual is different.

“The old argument of are manufacturers’ service bulletins or service instructions mandatory is gradually migrating to a moot point,” says Rodger. “These days, most manufacturers are inserting the requirement in their ICA, so it becomes mandatory.”

What is a mechanic to do?

So, how is a mechanic supposed to stay out of trouble? “It all boils down to covering your you know what,” says Rodger. “The owner is responsible for the airworthiness of the aircraft. Let him or her make the decision.”

Rodger recommends reviewing all service instructions and service bulletins during 100-hour or annual inspections. Then, any bulletins or instructions that have not been complied with can be included in the discrepancy list given to the owner. That way, the mechanic or IA has fulfilled his responsibility, and the onus is left in the hands of the owner, just like any other discrepancy found.

One last word of advice from Rodger is to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. “It boils down to common sense if you ask me. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, whether in the form of the maintenance manual, service bulletins, or service instructions. They are the experts. They know their products. They are liable for their products. Why would you choose to take on that liability by not following their recommendations?”