From the FAA: Cast Iron to Wi-Fi

Sept. 5, 2014

In the golden age of flying the world of aviation consisted of iron men and women who with skill, finesse, and sometimes brute force willed their aircraft to continue flying. Names like Rickenbacker, Earhart, and Yeager conjured visions of superhuman skill and bravery. Autopilot, global positioning, and automatic landing systems lived only in the realm of Buck Rogers and Star Trek. Much the same were the mechanics who maintained these cast-iron aircraft. Today technology has advanced in ways even Buck could not have imagined, but sadly some aspects of aviation have not kept pace.

In the beginning, the knowledge to maintain aircraft was derived chiefly from the emerging automotive field. Aircraft required a minimum of tools and expertise to keep them in the air. Consequently, this minimalist approach was also what caused an abrupt contact with the ground on many occasions.

As aircraft technology advanced at mach speed, maintenance training progressed on a parallel path. That was until the advent of avionics technology. The world of avionics rapidly progressed to the point where specific knowledge was required in order to troubleshoot these advanced systems. Through necessity the avionics system technician was spun off from the maintenance programs of the day. It was generally acknowledged that this separation was required to effectively accommodate the vast knowledge and training vital to aviation safely.

For many years the worlds of maintenance and avionics coexisted. When the advent of built-in test systems (BITE), automatic test benches, and slide in line replaceable units (LRU), arrived on the scene the maintenance landscape again changed. The financial experts in the airline community proclaimed that the extra funding required for maintaining an avionics department was not cost effective.

They reasoned that airframe and power plant licensed mechanics could deal with the troubleshooting and repair of avionics discrepancies. These experts used the rational argument that the aircraft avionics systems were testing themselves with diagnostic computers. Surely these computers would be more efficient than mere mortals at troubleshooting problems to the errant avionics LRU. Hence, with the discrepant unit identified, no special skill would be required to remove and replace it.

This theory did not take into account what happens when it is not a LRU causing the discrepancy. Who now has the experience to troubleshoot wiring or interface problems? For that matter, who can now operate the complex test equipment used to track down and correct these malfunctions?

Understanding avionics

A deep look into your maintenance program may find that repeat and recurring discrepancies in avionic systems are increasing exponentially. This can be directly attributed to a lack of avionics understanding. Note I did not say training. A technician can be trained in avionic systems but does he truly understand its inner workings and integration with other systems?  

When was the last time you had a course on reading electrical schematics? I have been enrolled in many training courses in which the prime focus was a passing grade on the end of course exam. This is, by no means meant to be a slight against aircraft mechanics or instructors, however in our current style of training the test is the only measure of success or failure. Practical exams are almost nonexistent. Even in failure, remedial training is usually given.

This training is not always in understanding the systems but, again in passing the test. This is not the fault of training schools. Schools will give the operator exactly what he asks and pays for. Unfortunately, what ever training can be crammed in a week is usually the norm. The first thing that typically goes (to the cheering of the crowd) is the art of reading electrical schematics. It is often accompanied with the comment “You don’t need to get into these systems this deep.” My point is you do.

Knowing how to read electrical schematics is essential if you need to know what to do when that self-test gizmo fails, or you have run out of boxes to change. It is not my intention to paint all avionics training with a broad brush. I have also been in some outstanding avionics courses that were geared more toward understanding the systems; however, these have been few and far between. Avionics training without avionics understanding is a false economic move that is doomed to bite you when you can least afford it. A core of properly trained experienced avionics technicians can and will have a very positive effect on your bottom line and overall aviation safety.

I believe by combining maintenance and avionics disciplines we as an industry have exceeded the point of information saturation that the human mind can effectively retain. If you do not understand avionic systems now, I have bad news for you. Future avionic systems being engineered at this time make our current systems look antiquated. Laser, superconductors and wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) ups the ante.  

It is time to go back to our roots and recreate specialists to quickly and safely deal with avionic systems. The cost of repeat write-ups alone bears out the truth of this statement. The cost to safety is inexcusable. In recent times serious aircraft accidents and incidents seem to be on the increase. Many of them can be attributed directly to avionics issues.

This call to action will, at first, be expensive but the increase in safety and reliability will pay back many fold.

Look at the recurring discrepancies

This is the time to have a critical look at your reliability system, be it CASS or otherwise. Is the data indicating an overabundance of repeat and recurring avionics discrepancies? Don’t just look at the alarm levels. Research the number of repeat and recurring write-ups that have occurred in the previous year.

Now, calculate their cost to your business in lost revenue and customer satisfaction. Have you checked with your avionics repair stations? How many of those expensive black boxes that have been sent in for bench check come back with no fault found? The phrase “No fault found,” is synonymous with the axiom, “you wasted money.”

How about your training program? When was the last time you sat in on a course, or even looked at its syllabus? Is it adequate for the changing times? Does it target avionics understanding? Do you have dedicated avionics technicians?

Is it time to reinvest in safety?

Michael Dziurgalski is an FAA aviation safety inspector and prinicpal avionics inspector ASTAR Air Cargo Inc. based in Cincinnati, OH. He served in the U.S. AIr Force as an avionics technician and quality control inspector.