Despite the FAA’s kinder and gentler approach to enforcement with the advent of its Compliance Philosophy Program, the prospect of certificate suspension and revocation is alive and well, especially with logging issues. Here’s a situation that played out a number of years ago that remains instructive today:
Has this ever happen to you? A pilot squawks a minor aircraft control-input problem, but maintenance personnel can’t find anything wrong, must a logbook entry be made? An enforcement case against an airline mechanic answers this question, and clarifies the regulatory requirement for the logging of aircraft maintenance. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the answer is “yes.”
The regulation involved is CFR 121.701(a). In very general language, it requires that: “Each person who takes action in the case of a reported or observed failure or malfunction of an airframe, engine, propeller, or appliance that is critical to the safety of flight shall make, or have made, a record of that action in the airplane’s maintenance log.” It obviously imposes this requirement on maintenance personnel. The more intriguing question is whether an “observed failure or malfunction of an airframe” is “critical to the safety of flight” if no problem is found.
The mechanic involved in this case had his airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate suspended for 15 days by the FAA for violation of this regulation. According to the facts of the case, he was sent by his employer to look at a Boeing 737 which had a possible flap problem. A pilot had reported that the airplane required right-hand aileron input to maintain straight and level flight. When the mechanic arrived, he and another mechanic inspected the left and right inboard aft flap assemblies. They deployed and retracted the flaps. They could find nothing wrong. No entry was made in the maintenance records for the airplane.
The airplane went out on another leg, and returned the same day. The problem persisted. The mechanic again deployed and retracted the flaps, and inspected the right inboard aft flap assembly, this time applying deicing fluid to the flap tracks. Again, no entry was made in the maintenance records for the airplane.
There was some evidence in the case that the mechanic was under some pressure from the pilot. The pilot did not want the matter “written up” because he wanted to make the final leg, promising to write it up when the airplane returned to Anchorage. There was also evidence that the mechanic consulted with his supervisor, the director of maintenance, causing the law judge to comment on the mechanic’s “efforts to do apparently all he could do.” But, in the final analysis, the law judge concluded that the mechanic violated the regulation by not making the logbook entries.
The mechanic appealed the FAA suspension to the NTSB. In the appeal, the mechanic raised this issue. He maintained that no entries were made because, according to the mechanic, the problem did not amount to something “critical to the safety of flight” within the meaning of FAR 121.701(a). Nothing was found amiss. The malfunction was not confirmed. The mechanic’s argument did not prevail. The Board sustained the suspension.
The Board specifically rejected the interpretation that the regulation requires maintenance entries only with respect to reported or observed failures or malfunctions that are critical to flight safety. “Rather, the regulation imposes a duty to make a log entry whenever a reported or observed failure in a component or system that is critical to flight safety results in someone having taken action to identify and correct it. In other words, it is not the actual problem the aircraft has experienced, but the discrepancy’s location that triggers the necessity for the recording of responsive action.” According to the Board and the FAA, if a pilot squawks a component or system that is critical to flight safety, the squawk must be cleared in a logbook entry even if nothing is found.
Almost anyone working in the aviation maintenance industry is acutely aware that there are regulations, manuals, bulletins, and directives that must be consulted, followed, and complied with in the performance of aircraft maintenance. This is a regulatory responsibility as well as a practical safety responsibility. But, how many of us are as acutely aware of the consequences of our failure to properly follow the instructions contained in those publications? Certainly, it is simple to understand that there are safety-related consequences associated with maintenance that you perform, but what other consequences may you need to be prepared for?
Kathy Yodice is the Managing Partner of Yodice Associates, a private practice law firm with a special emphasis on aviation law. She has more than 30 years experience representing airman in FAA enforcement actions, regulatory compliance matters, accident investigations, and aviation-related business issues.
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