Twin Cessna AD: What Ya Gonna Do When They Come For You?

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Got an older Sabreliner, JetStar, Learjet, Citation or GI you're still flying? How about an MU-2, Metro II or early Hawker? If so, then the ongoing drama among owners of 400-series Cessnas, the FAA and Cessna itself bears watching closely, especially if your type is no longer in production. As AVweb has reported, the FAA on May 15, 2003, proposed a complicated, costly Airworthiness Directive (AD) targeting the heavier twin Cessnas (not the 300-series airplanes, yet) for wing spar strap modifications on about 700 relatively high-time Cessna 401, 402, 411 and 414 aircraft. Earlier this month, the FAA held an unprecedented two-day public meeting, bringing together various interested parties to discuss the proposed AD. If adopted, the AD could force operators to incur compliance costs estimated as high as $70,000 per airplane, an amount approaching what an individual airplane may be worth. Aside from the expense associated with the proposed AD, the FAA's actions in this saga thus far suggest there may be dark days ahead for anyone with an "older" aircraft on which someone, somewhere has identified a potentially unsafe condition.

Two factors present in the history surrounding the proposed AD should be of concern to operators of older aircraft. First, there has never been a single accident or incident related to fatigue failure of the models' wing spar, the prevention of which is the AD's objective. Even the accident to which the FAA points as precipitating the proposed AD -- the April 27, 1999, fatal crash of a high-time Cessna 402C -- involved a 20,400-hour wing spar that had a manufacturing defect and had suffered a questionable maintenance history. Despite the fact of the accident, the fix proposed by the AD is not designed to address any other manufacturing defects or improper repairs.

A second factor present in the growing controversy surrounding the proposed twin-Cessna spar AD has to do with the manner in which the fatigue-analysis data was assembled and with its availability to operators. Back in 1995, the FAA signed a contract with Cessna calling for the agency to fund a study of the wings' fatigue characteristics but which also considered the data generated to be proprietary and, therefore, not for release to the public. Cessna completed the analysis and presented its proprietary data to the FAA in early 1999, shortly before the above-cited crash of a 402C. While the study's final report is available, the underlying data are not. In essence, the FAA paid a bunch of money to Cessna to develop data the company could use to request an AD and/or mandate expensive repairs to in-service aircraft but did so in a manner that prevents the public in general or affected operators from reviewing it. The problem with this is that, by law, information a federal agency uses to develop new regulations -- and an AD is a regulation -- is supposed to be available to the public for review and comment. That's not likely to happen in this case, unless Cessna relents and makes available to the public the information developed under its contract with the FAA.

Whether or not you operate a 400-series Cessna as part of your business, you should be concerned about the history and development of this proposed AD. If this process continues along the course set by the FAA, almost any manufacturer can go to the agency, say, "There's a problem, but we can't let you tell the public what it is," and request an AD. Such an AD could require major, expensive inspections and repairs, ground a fleet of aircraft, or both.