Monthly Archives: May 2009

Airline Caught Using Car Parts in Planes

Ft. Lauderdale-based Gulfstream International Airways is slapped with a $1.3 million proposed fine after  the FAA caught the carrier using automotive parts to repair its aircraft.

In a scorching May 7 letter to the company, The FAA runs down a lengthy list of violations, including substituting automobile air conditioning compressors in its planes, improperly installing ventilation components, over-working dispatchers, and even falsifying pilot flight time records.

The FAA cited several instances where Gulfstream records showed less flight time than what was logged in respective pilot’s personal logbooks, and other instances where company records showed taxi time credited to pilots, where other documents showed the respective pilot may never have even come to work that day.

Moreover, Gulfstream Academy – the company’s flight training arm – is the same company which trained the late Captain Marvin Renslow.  Renslow was the captain in the well-publicized Continental Commuter Flight 3340 that crashed near Buffalo earlier this year (see Feb 15, Feb 18, and May 13 blogs below).  Investigators in that crash allege Renslow’s pilot error may be a major cause in that accident that killed dozens.

Reportedly, records indicate Renslow failed multiple check flights before the crash; some of which occurred before working for the Continental commuter.  This raises questions about the quality of training Renslow received at Gulfstream Academy, and how the system allowed such a pilot to get re-hired; advanced to captain; and then paired with an inexperienced co-pilot until disaster struck.

Gulfstream International Airways serves as a commuter-feed airline to Continental, United, and NWA, and they also maintain a significant independent operation in Cleveland, OH.

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Continental Pilots Caught in Pension Scam

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The Houston Chronicle is reporting Continental Airlines is suing nine former pilots for perpetrating a pension fraud, which enabled the errant pilots to prematurely receive some $900 thousand each, in an early lump-sum pension payout.

The suit accuses seven male and two female pilots of staging sham divorces.  They divorced their spouse with a property settlement providing for their Continental pension money to be assigned to the ex-spouses.  The company then unwittingly paid the pensions to the ex-spouses even as the pilots continued working; only to learn the couples continued to live as husband and wife and re-marry later.

The pilots allegedly became fearful their pensions were in jeopardy and apparently saw this scam as a solution.  Many carriers trim traditional pensions costs by offering 401k’s instead, and some go so far as to abandon such benefits altogether; turning to the federal government Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to pick up the pieces instead.  But the PBGC benefits pay only pennies on the dollar for high earners like airline pilots.  Faced with financial ruin, some pilots are consequently turning to desperate solutions.

I personally know of other pilots – including myself – who took early retirements from the airlines at least in part because they were worried about the integrity of their pensions.  The gap in funding is not new: when Eastern Airlines went out of business in the 1980s, pilots faced financial ruin after their pensions were routed in bankruptcy.  More recently Delta, United, and US Airways entered bankruptcy and turned their underfunded pension plans to federal authorities leaving senior pilots in financial peril.

Unfortunately, stories like this are just one more example of what happens in an age of widespread economic failure.  The Houston Chronicle article can be found at:

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/6437320.html

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What’s Wrong at the FAA?

Recent revelations suggest the FAA may be due for a makeover.

On the heels of FAA oversight problems cited in the recent Continental Buffalo crash (see article below), WFAA-TV in Dallas is now reporting aircraft mechanics are being hired who cannot speak or read English.  It’s a scary prospect, because fixing airplanes requires mechanics to follow and later document step-by-step “recipes” for virtually any repair.

English is the official language of aviation.  If non-speaking mechanics are slipping past the FAA, people may die.  In 2003, the FAA was cited for lax oversight after US Airways Express flight 5481 went out of control and crashed on takeoff in Charlotte, NC, killing 21 people.  Investigators later discovered mechanics had reversed the wiring to critical flight controls.

From its inception, the FAA has face significant skepticism, because it has a dual role: both to oversee aviation safety and also to promote aviation.  These are conflicting mandates, which can place the agency in the delicate position of threading the eye of the needle when it comes to aviation safety.

Maybe it is time for that to change.  In the wake of this latest revelation, I urge the Secretary of Transportation to investigate the agency with an eye toward eliminating the agency’s dual mandate.  It is very questionable whether there is any need for a government agency to promote aviation – an industry which is now fully mature.  Instead, the Secretary should make certain the FAA has the personnel and materiel resources it needs, to properly regulate aviation in this country, solely.

The full WFAA story is found at:

http://www.wfaa.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/tv/stories/wfaa090515-_lj_harris.7a4a7d4.html

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Buffalo Crash a Wake-up Call for FAA

NTSB officials released the cockpit voice recorder transcript for doomed Continental Commuter Flight 3407, which crashed outside Buffalo back in February (see related blog stories Feb 15 and Feb 18 below).

The actions of the inexperienced crew seem amateurish.  They approached their task almost as if they were outside observers: talking about the icing instead of DOING something about it, like diverting somewhere else!  Worse, when their inattentive chatter (occurring at a time expressly forbidden by regulation) allows the plane to slow dangerously, the captain wrongly overrides the one safety system specifically designed to save the aircraft in just such a circumstance: the so called “stick-pusher” stall recovery system.

But in my opinion, the greater fault lies with Colgan Air, the regional carrier contracted to operate the flight.  Their head of pilot training testifies they never trained Captain Renslow, a man who had already flunked numerous check flights, on the stick-pusher.  Worse, they paired him with a rest-broken co-pilot, who admits in the recording she was hired with only 600 hours and had never seen icing conditions in the real world!

Are air carriers becoming lax in their hiring and training such that the public may be at risk?

In the wake of this crash, I call upon the  FAA to conduct a thorough review of its regulations dealing with crew training and experience to ensure they are adequate.  They must then make sure airlines are doing their part to manage their operations accordingly, and keep the public safe.

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NASA Set for Double Shuttle Launch

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Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on an historic mission to repair the Hubble Telescope; even as Space Shuttle Endeavour remains on the pad as a backup, should it become necessary to rescue Atlantis astronauts.

This marks the first time NASA has readied a second shuttle for this purpose, but engineers explain the Atlantis telescope repair mission is especially hazardous, because the ship will be exposed to more space junk than usual.  Hubble orbits some 350 miles above  the earth; well above the shuttle’s usual space station destination.  The area is close to a cloud of space junk, and at the same time, located too far for the crew to escape to the space station, should their ship be damaged by the debris.  So NASA is keeping Endeavour ready should a rescue mission become necessary.

Hubble Illustration

For all its years of spectacular images, Hubble is in desperate need of repair.  This final visit is meant to give the telescope another five years of service life before being abandoned entirely.

At the same time, the space shuttle fleet is nearing its own retirement sometime next year.  Retiring the shuttles may mark the end of the US manned space program as we know it.  The new Orion / Ares launch system will not fly for at least another six years; and even when it does, the missions will likely involve the efforts of many nations.  In the meantime, US astronauts will be forced to hitch rides aboard Russian spacecraft just to service the space station.

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FAA Withholding Birdstrike Data

The FAA is resisting efforts to release airport-by-airport birdstrike data, according to an article in the NY Post.

The agency reportedly believes releasing such data would be misleading.  Since not all birdstrikes are reported either by pilots, airlines, or airports,  opening the door to faulty conclusions by media and the lay public.

Critics charge the agency is overly concerned with maintaining the image of commercial aviation, and that’s the real reason they withhold the data.  NASA weathered similar scrutiny after they withheld the results of pilot safety reports two years ago.

Captain Jay believes both agencies are withholding their respective data for legitimate reasons.

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WOW!

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In an ultimate show of American ingenuity, an amateur rocketeer set a world record when he successfully built and launched this 36-foot model rocket nearly a mile into the sky.

Fifty-year-old Steve Eves of Ohio (seen below) spent more than $25 thousand (and 8000 lbs. of thrust) to see his dream become reality in a large field east of Baltimore, MD.

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For two years, Eves labored in his backyard building the rocket armed only with rocket plans obtained from the internet, old NASA drawings of the original, and limitless determination.  The rocket is a replica of NASA’s enormous Saturn V, which powered Apollo astronauts to the moon some 40 years ago.

Check out the launch, recovery, and slo-mo replay:

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