Software – The Solution?

In the week that there has been a significant amount of comment and discussion over the over reliance and automation of aircraft flight control systems, I have seen two comparable incidents, where contracted MROs appear reliant on IT systems, to the detriment of basic airworthiness principles. I tweeted a question to two highly respected individuals in this area @MWmDennis and @thesaundi, I suggest you have look at some of their comments on the subject. Their response is we are working on it; what they are working on is more automation, more IT?

Let’s look at the two scenarios I have seen, no names, no pack-drill, as they say!

A helicopter on a scheduled engine change, with the replacement engine on-site, I arrived to sign some paperwork on behalf of the operator, a routine task. As is always the case, I will walk round the aircraft, review the Aircraft Technical Log (ATL) review any occurrence reports, the forecast and the AD status. The aircraft was AOG for an engine mounting plate, spares were expected the next day. The unserviceable engine had been removed. On reviewing the ATL, I was surprised to find that the helicopter was “serviceable” there were no open entries for the replacement of the engine, or engine ground runs; the pilot in theory could sign for the aircraft. I accept that it may be a tad underpowered for a Cat A departure! On discussing it with the MRO’s quality manager, his view was “what is the problem, we don’t use the ATL”, it is unserviceable in the “system” – not what I expected to hear!

Another helicopter, a different MRO, on auditing the work-pack for a scheduled engine change, this is not a witch hunt against engine people, we find that the loan engine that was scheduled to be replaced, has been re-installed. The aircraft history has engine xxx removed and engine xxx fitted. Discussions with a different quality manager, result in the system being at fault again, GIGO? Further investigation of the work-pack, in particular the “system” generated process sheets, revealed that tasks, not applicable to this particular engine had in fact been accomplished and certified by a licensed engineer! On looking at the ATL, the entry simply stated “engine changed work-order xxxxx”, not very useful to a pilot!
So what is the fault here? Am I becoming my father? Please no!

We have two sets of highly qualified, not to mention expensive, sets of licensed engineers forgetting the basic principles of airworthiness, when carrying out maintenance, scheduled or defect rectification; clear and unambiguous entries in the ATL, open entries in the ATL when the aircraft is unserviceable. Have we got a generation of engineers, that cannot put an aircraft unserviceable without a mobile device, an e-mail from a Maintrol somewhere, possibly in another country, from a work-pack that appears as if by magic from the “system”? In my opinion we are in that place!

So what does it mean for operators?

We are in a hybrid state; we are neither fully automated, with the aircraft systems involved in the process and we have moved away from a predominately paper based system, that is based around the ATL. Surprisingly, supervisors are going to have supervise, not just act as a signature, management is going to have ensure that training time and resources are made available and not seen as easy targets. The evidence is that induction training and more importantly continuation training is failing to address the shortfalls in basic understanding – aircraft in maintenance cannot have a blank ATL page! Continuation Training is a mandatory requirement, for a reason, not just hindrance to be put up with!

As a Post Holder, I must take even closer oversight of maintenance activities on my aircraft, and be particularly rigours in ensuring the application of basic principles.

Is the solution, as suggested by @MWmDennis and @thesaundi, more IT? The answer has to be yes, the availability of current and applicable data at the “coal-face” has to be a good thing, the ability to instantly up date an aircraft configuration at the point of signing the Certificate of Release to Service should be the goal. While we are trying to get there, we must not forget that there are basic principles that need to be applied, enforced and if necessary re-enforced, with respect to airworthiness management. I am not sure that a lot of the development work with major flag carriers and the big two aircraft manufacturers is necessarily applicable or cost effective when discussing para-public operations, executive charter operations and regional airlines in the developing world, all areas I have visited in the last few months.

@MWmDennis, @thesaundi please remember there is a huge part of our industry outside Boeing, Airbus, and the, major carriers, solutions need to be cost effective!

Happy to discuss, as always!