Ever since the first shocking photos of a crippled Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 — its fuselage skin peeled back from cockpit to wing — flashed across television screens and made front page news across the world more than 20 years ago, the potential impacts of aging aircraft have been well-known to aviation maintenance professionals.
For those too young to remember the original news story, the fuselage rupture of a Southwest 737 this past April was a stark reminder that actions taken by aircraft manufacturers, operators, and the FAA after the Aloha accident in 1988 have not been sufficient to eliminate the potentially catastrophic impacts of aircraft aging. Mechanics today need to be particularly mindful and vigilant in maintaining aging aircraft if future tragedies are to be prevented.
While the term aging “aircraft” includes aging helicopters, most references in the media and even in some aviation publications, focus on airplanes. To some extent, that’s understandable. Nothing quite grabs the public’s attention as a plane full of passengers facing rapid or explosive decompression and staring up at the sky where the cabin ceiling once was.
Dramatic helicopter stories — even ones as deadly as the recent helicopter crash in Manhattan’s East River (age does not appear to be a factor in this accident with the NTSB apparently focusing on winds and weight as possible causes) — tend to have a much shorter media life span. But the fact that helicopters don’t garner quite the same media play does not mean that they are in any way immune from the cracks, corrosion, or frayed and brittle wiring that are the hallmarks of aging aircraft of every kind. Of course, the stresses of pressurization and depressurization on airliners is not a concern for most helicopters; however, the vibrations peculiar to helicopters should be.
Keep a vigilant eye
Helicopter mechanics — especially today when some operators are forced by the economics of buying new to keep flying older and older helicopters — need to be particularly aware of the impacts of an aging fleet. And that’s where mindset is important. I believe mechanics need to focus not just on the task at hand but also be alert to indicators of problems in the area in and around where they are working.
For example, when doing a required inspection, mechanics, of course, need to familiarize themselves with all the latest information on the particular make and model helicopter, so they know areas that are vulnerable to age-related problems. However, it’s important not to limit the inspection to these known areas. Keep an open mind — and vigilant eye — for indicators of problems outside these known problem areas. A too narrow focus may have been what caused mechanics to miss flaws in the upper fuselage of the Southwest aircraft.
Similarly, mechanics performing routine maintenance have a unique opportunity to not just accomplish their assigned task, but also look around for any problems that might be revealed when panels are removed or access is gained to areas that are not routinely visible.
Alert, inquisitive mechanics can and do save time, money … and lives! AMT
John Goglia has 40+ years experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.