Are Service Bulletins Mandatory?

A recent NTSB ruling brings the question of mandatory sevice bulletins into discussion.

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?”

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