Monday, August 12, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration Seeks Checks on Small Aircraft

Updated August 11, 2013, 9:57 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

U.S. aviation regulators on Monday will propose stepped-up inspections and accelerated replacement of engine parts on about 6,000 small propeller planes, one of the most sweeping regulatory moves affecting general aviation in the past decade.

The Federal Aviation Administration will call for enhanced safety checks of some 30,000 cylinder assemblies installed as replacements parts over the years on certain widely used Continental Motors Inc. engines that power many private aircraft, including popular Beech and Cessna models.

In a preliminary copy of the proposal posted on the Federal Register website Friday, the agency said its action was prompted by multiple reports of dangerous cracks, leaks or failures of cylinders and aluminum cylinder heads, which could result in engine failure "and loss of the airplane."

Since 2000 federal air-safety officials have identified more than 70 instances of cracks or failures of cylinder assemblies manufactured by closely held Danbury Aerospace, based in San Antonio, though the majority were resolved by previous safety directives.

Continental Motors was acquired in 2011 by China's Avic International Holding Corp., but the FAA's proposal covers only replacement parts supplied by Danbury Aerospace.

The latest proposal was prompted by FAA findings of 35 fractured cylinders manufactured prior to 2009, none of which the company says resulted in accidents or injuries.

Controversy over the parts heated up last year, when the National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to take action.

Government and industry officials said that the new directive released by the FAA, which had been in the works for years, has no connection to Friday's crash of a small plane in Connecticut that killed four people, including two children on the ground.

Capping years of negotiations between regulators and industry officials, the proposal comes over the objections of Danbury Aerospace units that manufactured and marketed the parts.

Company officials have told the government that the latest batch of failures stemmed from excessive temperatures resulting from improper operation of the engines, rather than from alleged design or manufacturing flaws.

As recently as April, the company told the FAA in a letter that potential maintenance errors mean "the dangers of removing cylinders are significant," and are likely to "result in an increased number of accidents and injuries."

The company projects as many as 10,000 private planes could be affected by the FAA's move.

Danbury Aerospace officials previously told the FAA that such a mandate could force the company into bankruptcy proceedings, according to company documents posted as part of the agency's deliberations.

In an interview on Sunday, Ty Stoller, Danbury Aerospace's president, reiterated that potential lawsuits and customer demands to replace the parts free of charge could end in a bankruptcy-court filing.

If it becomes final, the FAA's so-called airworthiness directive is expected to cost the industry about $82 million over roughly the next two years.

The FAA will accept public comments over the next 60 days, and Danbury is urging aircraft owners, maintenance companies and other interested parties to respond.

Over the weekend, the company put out a statement calling the FAA's proposal misguided and unsubstantiated, noting that the same operational issues pose a significant safety risk "for the entire general aviation fleet." The statement also said the FAA's move threatens to "cause a significant financial hardship to thousands of aircraft owners."

The FAA and the NTSB formed a task force in 2005 to look into failures of cylinder heads, including those manufactured by Danbury Aerospace's Airmotive Engineering unit, due to metal fatigue.

The company cooperated with the government and changed manufacturing processes in 2009.

In its proposal, the FAA stressed it acted only after conducting a detailed review "to consider all aspects of the information provided" by Airmotive. For many parts, inspection and compression tests are proposed four times a year; the FAA wants some to be replaced within 25 flight hours.

During discussions with the FAA, Danbury Aerospace and agency officials scuffled over whether sensitive company-generated test data should be returned to the company.

Eleven years have passed since the last time the FAA called for safety fixes covering so many small private planes at one time.

Starting in 2002, FAA officials mandated replacement of thousands of improperly heat-treated crankshafts in engines produced by Textron Inc.'s Lycoming unit. Fatal accidents, serious engine-failure incidents and other problems, including mandated engine recalls, cost that company more than $170 million.

Earlier this year, the agency ordered enhanced inspections and repairs where necessary to cables that control tail surfaces on about 30,000 Piper Aircraft Inc. planes. But those extra checks were less costly or disruptive than the current proposal, because they were mandated to occur during annual aircraft inspections.

The FAA originally anticipated releasing its proposed fixes a year ago. In the end, agency officials took the unusual step of crafting a package that is tougher and covers more aircraft than proposals initially contemplated by agency and safety board experts.