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Aging Aircraft

Let's say right now you're in your 20s, and you want to learn to fly. Unless you're among the vast minority who at that age can afford to buy a new airplane, (or fortunate enough to attend school with iPilot contributor Paul A. Craig and his school's new fleet of Diamond Stars), you're probably going to learn to fly in someone else's old Cessna or Piper.

Let's say right now you're in your 20s, and you want to learn to fly. Unless you're among the vast minority who at that age can afford to buy a new airplane, (or fortunate enough to attend school with iPilot contributor Paul A. Craig and his school's new fleet of Diamond Stars), you're probably going to learn to fly in someone else's old Cessna or Piper. If you're persistent you'll finish your Private certificate after 50 to 60 hours' instruction, and start renting other people's airplanes. Just about the time you decide you're in this flying game for the long haul, you meet that special someone, get married and start a family, buy a house, and settle into a career ... and your dream of airplane ownership gets back-burnered behind some of the more important things in life. You may even, for a couple of decades, have to give up flying entirely.

About the time you hit your late 40s or 50s, the mortgage will be paid off, the kids through college, and you'll be in your peak earning years. And you may go shopping for an airplane. Unless you're very wealthy, chances are you won't be buying a new-production airplane -- and you'll be faced with the fact that, according to the FAA, by the year 2020 (when current 20-somethings will be entering their peak earning years) the average single-engine airplane will be 50 years old!

The Time's Already Come
Spake the FAA, "In 2000, the average age of the nation's 150,000 single-engine fleet was more than 30 years." But wait, you respond: Cessna is still producing airplanes, Piper seems revitalized, Mooney and Beech are pushing a few dozen airframes each out the door annually, and Cirrus and Diamond are setting records, while Lancair, OMF and soon Liberty, are ramping up. ...Doesn't really matter. Even with all these models combined, airplane production in 2003 is a mere trickle compared to the heydays of yore. For instance, models of the Beech Bonanza have been in continuous production for 56 years, the most-produced piston G.A. airplane of all time ... but nearly 75% of all the Bonanzas ever built left the Beech factory before 1961!

In fact, information we had when I sold aircraft insurance at AOPA six years ago was that even with current production, the U.S. general aviation fleet shrinks by about 2% every year, from accidents, shipment overseas, and simply retirement and "parting out" because of the difficulty and expense of maintenance.

No One Really Knows
So what is the safe life expectancy of an airplane? No one really knows. Surely, airplanes inspected and maintained properly are far safer and in better shape than, say, the average boat or car of the same vintage (how many people regularly use 50-year-old cars for day-to-day travel, like we hope to do with airplanes?). Can you honestly think that Dwayne Wallace and company expected that 1956 Cessna 172 to be flying (likely with satellite-based navigation, weather uplinks, and solid-state multifunction panels and laser-gyro primary flight displays) in 2020? Do you think they envisioned it would still be aloft in 2003 ... or even 1976? Yet that's what we're asking of these airframes.

Help From Above
Am I calling for grounding of all these aging airplanes? Heck no -- I'm one of those waiting for my son to graduate so I can buy a plane myself! But we do need a plan to keep these "aging airplanes" safely aloft. And that's where the FAA has stepped in.

Before you grimace at the thought of that, consider that the FAA's Aging Aircraft summit (actually, an on-going series of productive working groups) calls together significant resources from those most interested in keeping these airplanes flying -- owners groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and the Antique Aircraft Association; "type clubs": including the American Bonanza Society and the (Globe) Swift Museum Foundation; and manufacturers including Cessna, Raytheon and Twin Commander. The first public result of these meetings is a document called "Best Practices Guide for Maintaining Aging General Aviation Airplanes." The Guide, available on-line at Aging Airplanes .PDF, is being mailed to the registered owners of all U.S. single engine airplanes more than 30 years old -- built before 1973.

"These airplanes could develop serious age-related problems as they continue to be used well beyond their envisioned design life," so says the Guide. "The bulk of the fleet is designed to Civil Air Regulations (CAR) 3 standards that were established in the 1950s or earlier. These standards lack fatigue and continued airworthiness requirements as part of their certification." The guide's authors forewarn that "thanks to…robust designs, these airplanes show few signs of aging. However, little is known about the condition of these old airplanes and the general effects of aging on them."

What it Says
The Aging Aircraft guide is enthusiastically hopeful about the future of aging airplanes. Its purpose is to provide "useful tips for assessing the effects of aging on (airplanes)." The Guide also "provides excellent guidance for user groups or type clubs to use for developing a checklist and gathering reference information specific to a model type." The FAA hopes "actions owners take based on these best practices will help protect their investment and, more importantly, help maintain the safety of their airplanes." The Guide proposes owners of older aircraft conduct an airplane records search and special attention inspections.

The airplane records search consists of review of that particular airplane's lifetime maintenance records, as well as an expanded search of items such as:

  • FAA registrations through the FAA, by N-number and serial number as sometimes an airplane's N-number has changed. This will reveal all past bills of sale and registrations, forms 337 (field approval of modifications) and Supplemental Type Certificates applied to that specific airplane -- to determine that the current configuration of the airplane is legal in the eyes of the Feds. Inquire at http://diy.dot.gov.
  • Type Certificate Data Sheets, or TCDS, to show compliance with certification and safety standards. Check at http://www.airweb.faa.gov/rgl.
  • Airworthiness Directives (ADs) applicable to the airplane and known installed components, found at http://www.faa.gov.
  • Special Airworthiness Information Bulletins, of SAIB, similar to an AD but not mandatory owning to less serious safety concerns, at http://av-info.faa.gov/.
  • Service Bulletins and Letters, obtained through the aircraft manufacturer or airplane type club.
  • Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs) for the type, an FAA database of reported problems with the airplane, engine or component. Check at http://afs600.faa.gov.
  • National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) records to detect known or unreported accidents in that airplane's past. Find them at http://www.ntsb.gov/aviation/aviation.htm.
  • General Aviation Airworthiness Alerts, from Advisory Circular AC-43-16A, a compilation of recent maintenance problems that are showing up on aircraft, but have not been fully evaluated to the point of becoming a service bulletin, SAIB or AD. Look at http://av-info.faa.gov/.
  • Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) records to find possible upgrades that may help overcoming aging aircraft issues. Research STCs at http://www.airweb.faa.gov/rgl.

THE BOTTOM LINE: None of us is getting any younger, and the same goes for the general aviation fleet. As pilots need to pay more attention to their health as they age, so must airplane owners be more proactive to keep our valuable air fleet aloft.

NEXT WEEK we'll look at the Special Attention Inspection, the role of Type Clubs and other ownership groups on maintaining older airplanes, and some other factors that may affect the long-term viability of aging general aviation airplanes.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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