Three NTSB board members, in a 2-1 vote, have ruled that FAA's emergency revocation of a Texas-based repair station's certificate was justified, overturning an administrative law judge's (ALJ) opinion that FAA over-reacted. The shop, Arlington, Texas-based AeroBearings, filed an appeal.
AeroBearings has been cited for not having complete data on a key machine it uses, and falsifying return-to-service documentation--8130-3 forms--related to work done on the machine. FAA revoked the shop's certificate on March 1, citing findings during a May 2017 inspection. AeroBearings appealed, putting the matter before the ALJ, which is part of the NTSB. FAA then appealed the ALJ's ruling, sending the matter to the board.
AeroBearings uses an FAA-approved military specification, or mil-spec, to repair and overhaul engine bearings, and developed its own machine to use in the inspection process. But some data on the machine's specifications were on a computer that belonged to the shop's now-deceased co-founder, and AeroBearings said nobody can access the password-protected files. The shop relies on previous results to verify the machine is working correctly, but FAA determined that the data needs to be available to support AeroBearings's approved ratings. NTSB agreed.
"The argument that the machines are working as designed because the bearings are repaired and inspected within acceptable ranges, is not persuasive," NTSB wrote.
NTSB also found justification for FAA's records-falsification findings, based largely on what it said was "missing information" on four 8130-3s cited by the agency. The 8130-3s indicated that AeroBearings performed work based on engine maintenance instructions, citing specific sections in CFM International, GE, and Pratt & Whitney manuals. But the forms did not explicitly state that some work was also done based on the mil-spec.
"The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) require the records to be clear on their face," NTSB wrote in its decision. "It should not be up to the end user to have to request whether the maintenance records they possess are the complete set of records--that is the reason for maintaining scrupulously accurate records."
Engine manufacturers do not recommend disassembling bearings for repair. Rather, bearings that do not pass inspections are sent back for full replacements. AeroBearings, seeing an opportunity to provide a service that costs less than replacement bearings, derived its repair process from mil-specs that the U.S. Air Force has used for decades. FAA signed off on AeroBearings's procedures in 2011.
NTSB's linking of 8130-3s to a "complete set of records" is likely to raise eyebrows in the MRO community. Repair stations are required to include 8130-3s along with parts they have inspected or repaired. The one-page forms are not complete maintenance records, and are not meant to provide details on what was done to parts--they simply verify that the work performed is airworthy.
NTSB's notion of an 8130-3's role as a complete set of records also appears to contrast with its view in a 1999 case against a mechanic who did not inspect work orders referenced on a return-to-service form. The mechanic believed the form itself, a yellow tag with hand-written notes including references to read work orders, signified the part was airworthy and installed it. But the work orders explained that the part would not comply with the manufacturer's specifications. NTSB faulted the mechanic for not referencing the rest of the maintenance records to see what was left off the form. "Had [the mechanic] taken the time to look at the work order referenced by the yellow tag, even if it might have been inconvenient to locate it, he would have immediately seen that the yellow tag in this instance did not signify a useable part," the board said in its decision.
The board's dissenting vote came from NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, who disagreed with the falsification charge as well as the decision to revoke the certificate.
Sumwalt argued that an incomplete statement is not the same as a knowingly false one.
"The majority would apparently find that any failure to be 'scrupulously accurate' in a mechanic’s logbook would foreclose the ability of a respondent to subsequently argue that he or she did not knowingly make a false entry," Sumwalt wrote.
He also said that AeroBearings's certificated should be suspended until it can demonstrate compliance with the FARs by reproducing the missing data lost on the computer--something the repair station says it could do. The revocation penalty requires a more involved certificate-reapplication process if the shop is cleared.
FAA has not issued an official recall or safety-of-flight warning on bearings serviced by AeroBearings. But the agency confirmed that it is "advising operators to quarantine the parts that are still on the shelves" until further notice.