Maintenance is Key to Aviation Safety

Saturday, March 23, 2013
By George Hatcher

In George’s Point of View

Inevitably into my business life flows discussion of (aviation-oriented) sequestration, the closing of traffic control towers, and how this will inevitably lead to more aviation accidents.

Yes, I agree with Harrison Ford’s comment that accidents are going to happen. But that prediction leaves a lot unsaid.

Cutbacks in other places, cutbacks in maintenance budgets, in the number and quality of inspections and maintenance personnel are going to be just as lethal.

Turn on your mind’s eye and picture the air traffic situation as you would on the ground in your car. Suspended towers are like suspended traffic lights. Picture what would happen if intersections were eliminated, forcing traffic from smaller streets to the larger intersections that are already overburdened with traffic. Into this already overburdened traffic situation, maintenance shortfalls make the problem even worse.

You have older, poorly maintained vehicles in the flow of traffic, and they’re falling apart, causing crashes and pileups. On the ground, they cause disaster. More so, falling from the sky.

Maintenance is a complicated thing, because even the perfect man-made thing is subject to the laws of physics.

The most perfect plane would decay over time even if it were not flown. So of course, even the best maintained vehicles are subject to fatigue. And not everything is maintained to “perfect” standards. Believe me, I see this first-hand, as I fly.

When the first commercial planes were built, who would have guessed planes would be required to fly for so long, so continuously and over such distances. It’s miracle enough that a machine can get people off the ground at all, much less doing it continuously for twenty years.

As fleets age, you have rivets flying all over the place when there is metal fatigue. Especially with older planes, metal fatigue will be increasingly the cause of future plane crashes. There are two choices: 1) old planes will be automatically junked (unlikely to happen in our increasingly green society) or 2) extreme comprehensive and manditory testing must be put in to place. This testing-maintenance can not be cut back.

I don’t mean put in to place after an event. I mean in place to prevent an event. To be able to get the plane in the air in the first place, most components of plane have been studied to the breaking point already. That is the kind of knowledge that must be applied to maintenance schedules. Get those parts replaced well before they become the weakest link.

MAINTENANCE is where it is. You can see the decay on the inside, on the parts that don’t matter much for flight safety. The seats on a plane break apart. Window shades won’t close. They are stuck up there somewhere, and if you try and force them, they break. (Just think of what frailties develop in crucial components that the passenger can’t see.)

The metal on a plane degrades in the same way. (Engineers have a name and formula for it: Paris-Erdogan law.) If you sit on the wing of an airliner that you know is 20+ years old—such as the plane I was on yesterday from New York—and you encounter turbulence—as we did—any passenger stuck on that plane can’t help but look in disbelief at wings that are bobbling up and down and flexing like a preschooler’s teeter totter. Here’s the question you don’t want to ask yourself at 20,000 feet: are the wings going to stay put? Are they going to flex and flex and flex like a metal clothes hanger bending till it breaks? How do wings not come off the aging plane?

I’m not accepting of the fact that crashes will happen. That’s too easy to say. It is pure negligence to accept oncoming disaster and do nothing to avert it. We can’t just let it ride. The aviation industry must remain proactive, no matter the cost.

It’s like the poor horse in Central Park. The older he is, the more maintenance he requires to keep from collapsing as he pulls the buggies and sometimes heavy bodies of those in the carriage. He needs to be fed better, to have water more often, to have a pasture to enjoy, and other horses available where he can socialize. Though the needs of a living creature differ from those of a machine, it goes without saying that both will thrive better with love and care than without.

Maintenance is key. First-class maintenance. Constant, consistent, perpetual maintenance. It is not adequate to rely on the pilot alone to do his walk around of the aircraft prior to take off. Sure, the pilot should do his visual, but his walk should be preceded by the maintenance specialist. The experts must scrutinize, inspect, examine, and put the plane through its paces.

Especially the aging plane.

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