AVweb Biz - Volume 12, Number 8

September 3, 2013

Limited Super Puma Flights Resume

At least one operator in the North Sea has resumed flights with a Eurocopter Super Puma helicopter this week, the BBC reported on Tuesday, though it's a different model from the one that crashed into the sea on Aug. 23, killing four passengers. That Super Puma was on a normal approach to landing until about three miles from the runway, according to a preliminary report from the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, "when there was a reduction in airspeed accompanied by an increased rate of descent." The helicopter was "intact and upright" when it crashed into the sea about two miles offshore. Fourteen passengers and the pilot survived.

Operators had voluntarily grounded the fleet, which comprises more than half of the aircraft serving the offshore oil industry in the UK. Bristow, an offshore helicopter operator, has resumed flying with a Super Puma AS332 L, a slightly different model from the L2 that crashed. Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said on Friday it doesn't think the accident was caused by an airworthiness or technical problem, according to Reuters, and the agency supported the operator's decision to resume flights. However, the AAIB said it didn't yet know what had caused the accident. The cockpit voice and data recorder was recovered last week. Industry unions have called for caution in using the fleet, noting that Super Pumas have been involved in five incidents since 2009.

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Embraer Delivers Upgraded A-1 Fighter To Brazil's Air Force

Photo: Chris Lofting via Wikimedia

Embraer delivered its first modernized A-1 jet, the A-1M fighter, to the Brazilian Air Force on Tuesday, at the company's industrial plant in Sao Paulo. The subsonic A-1 light jet is "fundamental" to the defense of Brazil, said Air Force Gen. Juniti Saito. "Its modernization presents a big gain in capability." Embraer said it plans to refurbish and modernize 43 of the jets. The new versions will feature upgraded systems for navigation, weaponry, oxygen generation, multimode radar, and electronic countermeasures. The new systems are similar to those found on F-5Ms and A-29 Super Tucanos, the company said, to make it easier for pilots and mechanics to adapt.

The A-1M jet can be used for air-to-ground attack, bombing, tactical air support and reconnaissance missions. The new upgrades include avionics that are compatible with night-vision goggles and head-up displays, according to Defense Industry Daily. The A-1 fleet entered service in 1990. The new refurbished airplanes are expected to remain in service until 2025.

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OSHA To Oversee Cabin Crew Safety

The safety of cabin crew in commercial aircraft has always been governed by the FAA, but under a new federal policy, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration now will have oversight over issues such as hazardous chemicals, exposure to blood-borne pathogens, and hearing protection. “Our cabin crewmembers contribute to the safe operation of every flight each day,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We’re taking an important step toward establishing procedures for resolving cabin crew workplace health and safety concerns.” The FAA said it will work with OSHA to ensure that any new requirements will not adversely affect aviation safety. 

The new policy, which was published in August, was required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which took effect last year. “Safety is our number one priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "It's important that cabin crewmembers on our nation’s airlines benefit from OSHA protections, including information about potential on-the-job hazards and other measures to keep them healthy and safe.” The Association of Flight Attendants said it has been lobbying for OSHA protection since 1975, when the FAA claimed exclusive jurisdiction over workplace safety and health for all crewmembers while working on board commercial flights.

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Labor Day Flying -- Pilots At Work

While most Americans and Canadians are enjoying a three-day weekend in honor of Labor Day, the skies are full of pilots who are doing their jobs despite the holiday. According to federal statistics, more than 100,000 U.S. workers earn their living in a cockpit, including all kinds of flying -- charter, helicopters, cargo, corporate flight departments, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, crop dusting, and more. Few of those jobs allow for standard weekends and holidays off, and all of them require a hearty work ethic. To celebrate these workers, and to entertain our readers who might have a day off, we selected a few videos from around the web showing pilots doing their jobs -- often under trying, or even terrifying, circumstances.

A video posted just a few days ago by the Royal Canadian Air Force shows pilots from the U.S. and Canada working with Russian pilots in an exercise designed to practice responses to a hijacking. This video, shot from inside the cockpit, shows pilots from the Air National Guard working to fight the recent fires near Yosemite Valley in California. In Peru, a couple of pilots in a twin turboprop fly a challenging -- some might say frightening -- winding approach to a mountain airstrip. And in Afghanistan, a recent Marine video recognizes the work of the ground crews the pilots depend on.

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New airplanes sales may be a little soft, but we're seeing plenty of refurb work -- everything from new panels to fresh paint to full-up interiors. We would like to feature some of these airplanes in the pages of AVweb and spotlight the owners and shops doing the work. If you have photos of your restored aircraft -- single, twin or turbine -- send them to us at refurb-otm@avweb.com. If we select your airplane as refurb of the month, we'll contact you for more information.

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ECI Cylinder AD: The More You Look, the Worse It Is

Here’s my definition of a bad day: You overhauled your Baron’s IO-520s  a couple of years ago using cylinders from ECI and now the FAA would like you to remove those jugs and replace them with something else. Round it off and call that about $25,000.

That’s the basic gist of a proposed airworthiness directive the FAA announced two weeks ago and about which we’ve been reporting regularly. The AD targets about 30,000 ECI cylinders of various vintages for two kinds of cracking: a failure in the shrink band that holds the head to the cylinder barrel via an interference fit and cracking in the dome of the head. Both flaws can result in catastrophic cylinder failure, but  not necessarily complete engine failure.

On this much, the FAA and ECI agree, but they see eye-to-eye on little else. They don’t agree on the number of actual failures in the field—the FAA says more than 30, ECI says it can confirm 19. Nor do they agree on the failure mechanism. In the AD documentation, the FAA says it doesn’t know what the failure modes are, just the results, while ECI insists that the head/barrel separations were caused by overheating due to pilot engine mismanagement. Maddeningly, the government’s own NPRM process precludes the FAA from supplying specific information on its methodology or the underpinnings of its conclusion to demand removal of these cylinders. The AD docket gives some information, of course, but ECI says it has a lot of questions the FAA isn’t answering. 

In my view, no reasonable person could look at the available data—a combination of Service Difficulty Report analysis, field reports and in-house manufacturing history—and feel confident of having an accurate picture of reality. In short, the data is just too sketchy. It may be biased toward classifying failures that aren’t head/barrel separations or it may very well miss many that are. I'm not sure you can tell which is which from reviewing the data.

Taking the broader view from this too vague compilation of dodgy numbers and unsupported theories, ECI concedes this: When compared to Continental Motors OEM cylinders, its incidence of head/barrel separation is much higher, although just how much higher we don’t know. They don’t either because they don’t have accurate numbers for the Continental OEM cylinder population. ECI says it has about 25 percent of the cylinder market and during the period 2002 to 2012, ECI insists it had 19 verified head/barrel separations compared to 24 for Continental on the same 520/550 cylinders. The raw data ECI provided us showed 36 failures, but the company says many of those were unverified or improperly classified.    

Just to grasp at some kind of solid foundation in a field of numbers that just don’t add up, let’s accept ECI’s 19 failures. As these things go, that’s comparable to the Continental record, except for one thing: it applies to a much smaller population of cylinders, so the rate of failure is at least twice as high, but could be four or more times as high, depending on whether ECI’s estimate of its cylinder market share is accurate. On a rough per engine basis, the 30,000 ECI cylinders under the gun represent 5000 engines, meaning that with 19 incidents, the per engine rate is one failure per 263 engines. For Continental engines, the rate is much lower, perhaps as much as four or more times lower.

Isn’t that damning for ECI? It certainly doesn’t look good. There’s got to be some explanation for ECI’s higher failure rate. And there is, but first, let’s put things in perspective. Worst case, at least from the data we have and with the caveats I’ve described, the percentage of ECI cylinders with head/head barrel separations is 0.12 if you accept the FAA data and about half that if you take ECI’s data. Moreover, ECI's data shows a declining incidence of head/barrel separations, with none at all during the past two years. Its statistical analysis suggests the separations are in decline in the target cylinder population. 

While it’s true that these rates and percentages are worse than for Continental cylinders, we are still talking about very small risks indeed. Could it be that there have actually been many more ECI head/barrel separations than have been reported? Maybe, but if that’s so, why haven’t any of the six engine shops I canvassed two weeks ago seen them? It seems reasonable that if there’s a breaking wave of heads flying off of barrels, at least some of the shops would know about them. They don’t seem to. Nor have we heard from any readers with direct experience following the ECI story.

 As I reported two weeks ago, what some of the shops have seen is what I call pedestrian cracking—cracks around fuel injector bosses, spark plug holes and the like. Some shops think ECI cylinders are more susceptible to this and have stopped recommending them, but that’s an entirely different consideration that has nothing to do with head/barrel separations.

So against this backdrop of uncertain data and a small risk, the FAA proposes the potential of an $83.3 million AD to selectively remove these cylinders from service, the cost to be borne entirely by owners. Given the weakness of the data and the small numbers, this is obviously hitting a small nail with an exceedingly large hammer. Absent better data from the FAA, I just don’t see how this AD is justified.

But that’s not to say nothing should be done. ECI doesn’t challenge the fact that Continental OEM cylinders have a much lower rate of head/barrel separation. Their explanation for this is that their cylinders live in a different market segment that’s heavy on older or aftermarket applications in which pilots don’t have sophisticated engine monitoring and are thus more likely to mismanage engines and thermally stress their cylinders, which ECI says is the failure cause, not manufacturing or quality issues. When I visited ECI in San Antonio last week, they showed me data that clearly showed how cylinder mating threads are stressed by over temping, with the load curve heading straight up above 450 degrees or so.

But I’m not quite ready to buy this argument, frankly. Plenty of Continental OEM cylinders go on older Bonanzas and Cessnas and there’s no reason to believe the pilots of those airplanes are any more or less hamfisted with the mixture knob than are ECI cylinder buyers. And ECI doesn’t have the electronic data from any cylinder failure events to correlate the theory in the real world.

Bottom line, ECI cylinders fail at a higher rate, but not so high as to represent meaningful additional risk worthy of the FAA’s massive AD.  The risk here is too small for the FAA to wade in and dent owners with this kind of overbroad, expensive AD. While the FAA has a duty to protect the public safety, it should do so reasonably and with cost in mind. Small or marginal risks—and this appears to be in that category—should be left up to aircraft owners to judge and mitigate. In my view, a non-mandatory service bulletin that summarizes the data and advises  owners of the failure pattern and rate and how to inspect cylinders for potential cracks seems the fair way to approach this. Owners can then make their own risk/cost assessments, which is what owning an airplane is all about anyway. Then watch the situation for a couple of years and revisit as necessary. Otherwise, the AD ought to be dropped for now.

You can read and comment on the docket here.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: Electronics International Unveils New Multi-Purpose Instrument

While old airframes may keep soldiering on, the instruments and radios in the panels usually don't.  At AirVenture this year, Electronics International rolled out a new instrument designed to replace older instruments, including tachometers, engines instruments, and other indicators.  In this video, EI's Tyler Speed gives us a quick product tour of the new CGR-30P.

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Video: PS Engineering's PAR200 Multi-Function Audio System

There's a need for affordable audio system upgrades for basic aircraft.  PS Engineering attempts to answer the call with the PAR200 -- a three-in-one system that combines an advanced audio panel, a stereo intercom, and a remote comm radio.  In this video, Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano takes a look at the unit during it's introduction at AirVenture 2013 at Oshkosh.

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