Parts Is Parts....again!

Nov. 1, 1999

Parts is Parts. . . Again!

By Stephen P. Prentice November 1999
Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot. He worked with Western Airlines and the Allison Division of GMC in Latin America, servicing commercial and military overhaul activities and is a USAF veteran. E-mail: [email protected]

The Piper ran into power lines in the vicinity of a high desert airport in California. When the pilot took off with his two passengers and baggage, the ambient temperature was over 100 degrees F and the airport elevation was 3,400 feet. This was a guaranteed prescription for tragedy. The airplane refused to climb at a rate sufficient to clear power lines that border the airport. Three people died.

This accident generated three years worth of litigation, which continues to this day. Here is a list of the litigants: 1) The heirs of the passengers and the pilot; 2) The Gas Company; 3) The Electric Company; 4) The company who last performed an annual inspection on the airplane; 5) A company that worked on the airplane previous to the annual; 6) Three insurance companies; 7) A parts repair shop; 8) The airplane manufacturer; 9) The engine manufacturer; and any number of additional unknowns to be added when they are found.

The accident clearly resulted from the pilot's negligent operation of the aircraft beyond its design and performance limits. Nothing new about this. The case should end with the pilot's insurance company paying the heirs of the deceased passengers, which they of course, did.

"The best advice that technicians and shops can give their customers is to forget about any shortcuts or bargain repairs. If they can't afford to fix it right, then don't."

But, now they must search for others responsible in an attempt to recoup their payout. For example, they would maintain that there should have been visibility balls on the wires to make them more visible. The supporting structures were sitting right there for all to see. But, the argument goes that they were positioned in a negligent location —of course. That should be it. But noÉ the shotgun blast of the lawyers must go on and on.

The teardown
On examination of the engine, it was noticed that the exhaust system and the muffler were crushed by the force of the crash. This particular exhaust muffler happened to have been repaired by a local welding shop to take care of some cracks and loose baffles. All of the evidence supports the fact that there was nothing defective in the performance of the muffler. Nonetheless, much was made of the fact that the muffler could have restricted the exhaust flow and hence, the power from the engine, and thus, contribute to the accident. Quite a stretch. But it gets more interesting than this and here is the meat of the matter for all you technicians and shops out there.

The shop that repaired the muffler was not a repair station nor was it repaired by a certificated A&P mechanic. This is a common occurrence. It simply was repaired by a welding shop that had done many of these types of repairs before. The muffler was sent out for repair and re-installed by a repair station that determined the repair was airworthy. The repair station stood behind the repaired muffler and of course, the airworthiness of the installation. Much has been made in the past of the fact that this part is not a new part, and maybe not even a "remanufactured part," but simply a "repaired" part that is inspected and installed in accord with the repair station's authority for return to service. The issue remains however, whether the part is remanufactured or simply repaired.

There is no question but that a repair station can have outside services do welding repairs. However, the issue becomes — Is the part "rebuilt" to a point where it is a substitute for a factory provided new part?. The lawyers would argue that the part is "bogus" since it does not conform to factory specs and is not otherwise TSO'd. They would allege that it collapsed internally and restricted the power output of the engine causing the crash. Not a bad theory. But, it is only a theory. The problem for the shop is getting around the use of their repaired non- standard part. The lawyers would say that this is a violation of the FAR's and a new muffler should have been installed rather than the "re-manufactured" or repaired one.

The key here is that the welding shop has no liability whatsoever. Because the certified repair station used the shop and accepted the repaired muffler for installation, they must stand behind the part. The welding shop is not certified for anything. They are simply a welding shop. Total responsibility for both the technical aspects of the repair and the airworthiness of the installation lies with the repair station doing the work on the aircraft.

The risk associated with the use of the repaired part is borne totally by the licensed repair facility or an individual licensed technician. They must stand behind the welding shop, the airworthiness of the work and the installation.

The law - make your own parts?
The experimental people make their own parts — as long as the part is for personal use. FAR 21.303(b) (2) clearly allows an exception to the general rule requiring that all parts used on certificated aircraft be produced under a Parts Manufacturing Approval. Well, is this the loophole we need to install non-PMA parts? Remember also that Minor repairs do not require any kind of approval by FAA. The only admonition is that the article is restored to its "original or properly altered condition."

This issue has been dissected many times. Air carriers can likewise make parts for their own use. FAR 121.379 sets out the general guidelines involved.

An owner can legally have a welding shop re-manufacture his muffler for the owners aircraft as an "owner produced part." If the owner was on site and helped in regard to the quality and manufacturing performance of the part, the part could qualify as an owner produced part. A repaired (remanufactured) muffler for example could be so noted and approved by the owner for installation on his own aircraft. The owner would essentially approve the use of the part and the shop would approve the installation and airworthiness. This step would perhaps prevent any argument over whether or not the part is "approved" or bogus.

Any other approach outside of a new PMA factory part or a re-manufactured part by an approved repair facility would be treading on thin ice to say the least. A new or yellow tagged part may be the dollar-wise way to go to avoid any problems down the road.

Paperwork problems
A key element that is part of this equation regarding the use of repaired parts — that the part may not conform to the original —— deals with the necessity to have inspection and wear tolerance data along with instructions for such inspection and disassembly that may be necessary. FAR 43.13a sets out the requirement described as "...current manufacturers maintenance manual (instructions) or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness..." Any parts produced for STC application for example, must have included instructions for continued airworthiness of the part or unit. Remember, out in the shop, you still must perform your work in accordance with methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Administrator. In addition, as you all know, the part or repair must return the article to its original or properly altered condition.(FAR 13(b).

The paperwork required and/or reviewed for some repairs or replacement parts can be a pain to locate and digest. Yellow tags, instructions for continued airworthiness, manufacturers manuals, bulletins, and similar acceptable data must be consulted prior to commencing your work. These are the road maps for the repair. Note here the differences between acceptable and approved data — fodder for deep discussion that we shall reserve for a future column.

Avoid the problem altogether?
If you want to avoid potential problems, just stay away from other than certificated parts and repairs. It will be more expensive, but could save you money in the long run if you happen to be unlucky enough to get involved in litigation after an accident.

Remember, you can't control what happens to the airplane after it leaves your shop. The relationship with your customer will mean nothing when things get tough and lawyers get involved. What level of maintenance it receives, and who is going to maintain it always should give you pause when you are inclined to cut some corners for the customer.

Quality is seldom cheap and "approved." Parts are never cheap. The best advice that technicians and shops can give their customers is to forget about any shortcuts or bargain repairs. If they can't afford to fix it right, then don't. Teach your customers that there is little room for compromise when you are flying along at 5,000 feet.