Evidence presented by FAA did not support the agency's emergency revocation of repair station AeroBearings's certificate, an NTSB administrative law judge has determined. FAA has appealed, putting the issue before NTSB's full board.
The March 1 revocation, which AeroBearings appealed, included accusations that the shop did not follow approved data and falsified 8130-3 return-to-service tags that said repaired parts were airworthy based on that data. After five days of testimony last month, Judge William Mullins concluded that the while the shop lacks data on one of its machines, it was following procedures that FAA had approved, both initially and in follow-up inspections—including a special audit in December 2015—and should not have been shut down.
"There was no evidence of intentional falsification," Mullins said. "There are questions about the procedures that are being used by this repair station that can only be resolved by compliance with and/or very specific directions from the principal maintenance inspector….Certainly the evidence doesn't justify revocation."
FAA's stepped-up scrutiny of the Arlington, Texas-based shop began with two online complaints in 2016 about issues with bearings overhauled by the facility. Agency inspectors visited the shop in May 2017 and conducted a two-day "reinspection" audit. Their findings were not shared with the shop until just before the revocation.
"Amazingly…the report of that reinspection was issued the same day or the day before the Emergency Order of Revocation went out," Mullins said. "There was never an opportunity to correct whatever [AeroBearings] was doing wrong."
FAA's testimony also confirmed that the May 2017 inspection team never consulted with previous FAA inspectors that found no issues at AeroBearings. The company testified that none of its procedures changed after the 2015 audit that found nothing amiss.
"I think that [the May 2017 inspection team] went out there with revocation in mind rather than to help this repair station," Mullins said.
AeroBearings, one of the few repair stations that overhauls engine bearings, developed its procedures using military specifications, or mil-specs, it received from the U.S. Air Force, which has been overhauling bearings at Tinker Air Force Base for decades. FAA, after consultation with the European Aviation Safety Agency and at least one engine manufacturer, approved the mil-specs as the basis for AeroBearings's repair work in 2012. A 2015 special audit by FAA found nothing amiss.
Among the processes AeroBearings uses is inspections with a machine the company developed itself, using a design developed by Stanford University researchers as a guide. AeroBearings founder Zev Galel says the technical data related to its machine are on a computer that the company can no longer access. Galel says results from bearings inspections are compared to previously verified results to ensure the machine is accurate, but Mullins said that this does not satisfy FAA's requirement to have technical data available.
"I didn't see anything in all this evidence that those machines had to be approved by the FAA, but I think the design and the function of the machine has to be recorded and available to the FAA, and it wasn't," Mullins said. AeroBearings "should have reconstructed that data and have it available in case the [FAA] wants to look at it, and also have it available so that the folks working on the machine would have the data to see how it functioned."
AeroBearings, which has 10 full-time employees, counts major airlines, engine manufacturers, and repair stations within and outside the U.S. as customers. The company says it has no knowledge of an in-service failure linked to one of its parts. FAA's emergency order does not require that parts overhauled by the shop must be removed from in-service engines or parts inventories.
Mullins chastised both parties for the apparent lack of an open dialogue that could have prevented the shop's closing.
"The appropriate sanction would be one that the parties could agree on how they were going to get these issues worked out," he said. "I really would hope, for the 10 employees that are unemployed now because of this order, that you folks could set aside all your personal differences and sit down and try to work out a solution."