Published on May 23rd, 2016 | by Jim Lee0
Allegations that some Air Corps inspectors are not qualified to sign-off on repairs rejected in Report
In our last piece posted on 31st January, we reported on the ongoing questions in the Dáil concerning the issue of the qualifications of some Air Corps inspectors, and allegations that some Air Corps inspectors were not qualified to sign-off on sheet metal repairs. These allegations had been made by a whistle-blower. The Minister had also received a disclosure under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 (from the same source), and follow-up correspondence in relation to this matter.
The Minister had directed that an independent review be carried out, by external competent experts, into all of the issues raised in the protected disclosure. The Independent Review Team consisted of Eddie Sullivan (a retired Secretary General of a Government Department) and two officials from the Irish Aviation Authority, Nicholas Butterfield (Manager Aircraft Registration and Design Control) and Martin Purcell (Manager Personnel Licensing Division). The Review Team was tasked with undertaking a full review of the allegations, by assessing the technical position, and carrying out a thorough review of all relevant documentation, records, submissions, processes and procedures, in use by the Air Corps.
Unfortunately, the Review process took longer than expected and this was due, in the main, to the volume of documentation, the Review Team had to examine, relating to the certification of aircraft inspectors, the regulatory regime, the complexity of the issues involved and the interconnectedness of the various Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the Redress of Wrongs (RoW) application, and the protected disclosure itself.
When the matter was again raised in the Dáil on 26th January 2016, the Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney confirmed that the Independent Review Team had completed its work, had forwarded its report to his Department, and that he was considering it, and would publish it as soon as possible. The Minister also stated that there were no airworthiness issues arising from the allegations and the report was now published (Available HERE).
The report concurred and while it accepted there was some procedural/documentation deficiencies, there was no evidence to indicate that false, or misleading information, was deliberately given to superiors, or that information was withheld from them. In regard to the qualifications of Air Corps inspectors, it found that civil aviation practice and norms are followed, to the greatest extent possible by the Air Corps.
In November 2014, the Minister for Defence received written correspondence from a member of the Defence Forces’, drawing attention to certain matters, which the member alleged, could have serious consequences for flight safety. The matters related to certain Air Corps Aircraft Inspectors having authorisation to certify sheet metal repairs and modifications on aircraft types, currently in service within the Air Corps, without the required qualifications or experience to do so. And if you were to educe more info on sheet metal repairs, like powder coating and sandblasting, you’d know that it is no cinch to carry out an operation like that. Allegations were also made regarding misleading information being provided to the Chief of Staff and others, and of information being withheld.
The member had also indicated his wish to make a disclosure, under the Protective Disclosures Act 2014. On behalf of the Minister for Defence, this matter was referred by the Secretary General, Department of Defence, to the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces for a report, which was submitted on 6th January 2015.
Following further correspondence with the member and new information provided by the military authorities, the Minister directed that the independent review be carried out.
Terms of Reference of the Independent Review
The terms of reference outlined the scope and timeframe of the Review, which was to encompass an examination of all relevant documents, held by the Department and the Defence Forces, any additional material supplied or received by the Reviewers, and interviews of such persons as considered appropriate by the Reviewers. In addressing the terms of reference, they reviewed a large volume of documentation and correspondence, dating back several years and inspected technical training records, authorisation records, aircraft repair and maintenance records. They also spoke to a number of relevant people, including the member who made the allegations. The detailed terms of reference were:-
- Review the allegations as detailed in the written correspondence to the Minister, including
a) Allegations concerning certain technical issues which it is alleged could have serious consequences for flight safety, including:-
- that a number of Air Corps Aircraft Inspectors have authorisation to certify sheet metal repairs and modifications on aircraft types currently in service within the Air Corps without the required qualifications or experience to do so,
- that Air Corps Aircraft Inspectors do not meet the regulatory requirements set out in the Air Regulation Manual,
- that the interview panel that granted Air Corps Aircraft Inspectors additional authorisation to inspect sheet metal work was not constituted in accordance with the Air Regulations Manual and, therefore, the authorisation granted to the inspectors is invalid,
- that sheet metal work repairs carried out by Air Corps technicians are not limited to minor repairs,
- that health and safety regulations are not being adhered to, and
- review the appropriateness of the procedures that are in place for the certification of technicians in the Air Corps. and
b) Allegations regarding misleading information being provided or of information being withheld, including
- that misleading information regarding health and safety and work practices within the Air Corps has been provided to GOC Air Corps and the State Claims Agency,
- that senior military personnel were made aware of the concerns raised in the protected disclosure yet no action was taken to remove the additional authorisation to inspect and certify aircraft structural repairs as airworthy, and
- that information was withheld from the Chief of Staff during the military investigation of the complaint.
The Reviewers were also to consider the nature of the military investigation conducted into the protected disclosure and whether it was appropriate, given that the issue was the subject of an FOI in November 2011, a complaint from a member of the public in 2012, a RoW investigation in 2013 and a protected disclosure in November 2014.
They were also required, in relation to each of the allegations as set out above, to provide considered views and observations in relation to the substance of the allegation. They were also required to provide such other considered views and observations as are considered necessary.
The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces each appointed a liaison officer to provide the necessary information required, all available documentation relevant to the events and any other documentation requested by the Reviewers, to enable them to conduct the review. They also assisted the Reviewers in identifying the relevant persons to be interviewed. For this purpose a full list of the names of all relevant persons, including serving or retired members of the Defence Forces, or other persons the Reviewers considers appropriate was provided to enable the Reviewers to interview or take statements from all relevant persons.
It was originally intended that a report would be submitted to the Minister for Defence by the primary Reviewer before the 31st of October 2015.
The following matters were specifically excluded from the Review:-
The member in question had also claimed that he was, and continued to be, penalised as a result of making the protected disclosure in this case. In relation to the allegations of penalisation, Section 20 of the Protected Disclosure Act 2014 provides that a member of the Defence Forces who alleges penalisation for making a protected disclosure, may complain directly to the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces (ODF) and that the ODF must investigate these complaints. The member was advised by the Minister to make a complaint to the ODF in relation to the penalisation claims. Therefore, the review did NOT include looking into or considering any allegations relating to the penalisation.
Consideration of allegations made
The Review Team had to consider a number of allegations that had been made as set out in the terms of reference, however essentially the claim was that in excess of ten Aircraft inspectors, who have been given additional Aircraft Inspector Authorisation to inspect and certify aircraft sheet metal Minor Repairs, Minor Modifications and in some cases Major Repairs/Modifications and approved Structural Repairs, were not qualified to do so. This was because, it was alleged, that these personnel were “not qualified within the trade of sheet metal fabrication”, nor did they have “a proven track record/history of carrying out such work”.
This in fact proved to be a key issue. The member who made the Disclosure had raised, over the years, his concerns with his superiors. Air Corps management had been faced in late 2010/1011 with particular practical issues of staffing, due to a public sector wide moratorium on the filling of vacancies. The course of action they decided on was one with which the member did not and does not agree. The member felt he had been wronged and submitted a RoW application, as he felt this was the only way, this could be highlighted. This was examined by a military Investigation officer and eventually decided on by the Chief of Staff, who held that the member had not been wronged.
In addition, he had also made numerous FOI requests over the years which were processed and in the main he received the documentation that he requested, where it existed, and as provided for under the FOI legislation. Finally, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 provided a further opportunity for him to air the issues that he had concerns about. These were examined at a senior level within the Defence Forces and a report prepared for the Department of Defence. All the various matters raised were addressed in one way or another.
In response to the issue that the Aircraft inspectors, who had been given additional Aircraft Inspector Authorisation AF 692’s to inspect and certify aircraft sheet metal Minor Repairs, Minor Modifications and in some cases Major Repairs/Modifications and approved Structural Repairs on all aircraft types currently in service within the Air Corps were not qualified, the GOC of the Air Corps responded by saying that each of the 10 inspectors to which the report refers “are very experienced aircraft inspectors, who have been properly trained and approved as aircraft inspectors and have many years’ experience inspecting and certifying aircraft. He added that they had “completed an Air Corps apprenticeship which includes full training in sheet metal theory, practice and application. Each has the required qualifications and experience to perform aircraft inspections and to certify work completed on aircraft. In addition they have completed aircraft manufacturer’s type courses approved and regulated by National Airworthiness Authorities. The completion of aircraft type courses qualifies technicians to perform maintenance on aircraft in accordance with approved maintenance publications. These publications include the Structural Repair Manual which describes sheet metal repairs and approved modifications. Accordingly their formation, training, selection and appointment as aircraft inspectors are entirely consistent with aviation industry norms.”
He went on to state, in the context of the RoW application that the authorisation granted to the ten A&P (Airframe and Power plant) aircraft inspectors was for “the inspection of minor sheet metal repairs on a specific aircraft.”
The Review Team noted that the GOC made a clear distinction between the role and authorisation of the inspector in the sheet metal shop and that of the A&P Inspectors who were given the additional authorisation privileges. He is also emphasised to them that what was involved was certifying ‘minor’ sheet metal repairs.
In late 2010/1011 with two sheet metal inspectors approaching discharge and, with the moratorium on public sector recruitment in place, a special case was initiated to fill the vacancy of aircraft inspector in the sheet metal shop, but it was not processed or finalised. Other options and alternatives arrangements had to be fully considered including outsourcing. It was eventually decided to grant additional authorisation privileges to five existing Senior Aircraft Inspectors, however these existing Inspectors were not authorised as per “the scope of work as exist for the sheet metal shop.”
This made a clear distinction between the work of the sheet metal workshop inspector and that of the senior aircraft inspector who releases an aircraft for service. While it is normal for a technician working in a specific discipline, such as sheet metal, to have the necessary skills to perform work to an acceptable standard, an aircraft inspector need not have the same skills level, but must have an appropriate level of experience to support his certification privileges, relating to the aircraft.
The Review Team examined the processes associated with the assessment and authorisation of the identified inspectors and reviewed their training records and experience. They were satisfied that the Air Corps processes are consistent with what would be expected in the civil aviation sector. In particular, the approach taken to the authorisation of aircraft inspectors in the circumstances of the time was reasonable and practical. Consequently, in their view the approach adopted did not give rise to a flight safety issue.
It was also alleged that the Aircraft Inspector Interview Panel/Board that deemed that these personnel met all the regulatory requirements/standards, which are stipulated in Air Regulations Manual Part E, was itself not constituted as per Air Regulations Manual Part E Section 3 Para 3.8.2, the authorisation therefore granted to these personnel to inspect in the functional area of aircraft structural repair, alterations and modifications was in itself invalid.
It was accepted that “the Complainant has correctly highlighted that the Inspector Interview Panels were NOT constructed (i.e. those on it were not) in accordance with the ARM 21,” but noted that the role of the Inspector Interview Panel was to assess whether the ‘candidate has the necessary personal qualities, experience, knowledge and expertise to competently carry out the duties of Aircraft Inspector.’ Once the recommendation is given by the Panel, the OC Quality Assurance and the Chief Airworthiness Officer (CAO) decide whether to grant the authorisation. These are measures stipulated in the Air Regulations Manual (ARM), as signed off by GOC Air Corps.
The GOC Air Corps stated that each of the individuals concerned was assessed for competence and that each of these assessments was carried out by ‘competent, qualified and duly authorised personnel. This is in keeping with civilian norms and that “There are no civilian rules regarding the requirement for the specific composition of an interview board”. However, it was accepted that “practice and procedures of this nature should not conflict with the regulatory position” and that the GOC Air Corps “conduct a full review of Aircraft Inspector Panel regulations and, where necessary, makes the appropriate amendments”.
The Review Team’s view was that the wording and structure of ARM section 3.8 (June 2009), relating to the certifying and authorisation process for aircraft inspectors, lacked a degree of clarity and led to some misunderstanding as to the precise requirements. The terminology was loose and the process not clearly set out. Although this section was revised in January 2015, the Review Team felt that there is further scope for clarification and simplification of the process.
The ARM clearly envisaged that there would be changes/revisions to an Aircraft inspector’s authorisation within a grade. Specifically, it stated that inspectorships and authorisations would not be held indefinitely, once gained. There was no clear requirement set out in the 2009 revision of the ARM for convening an interview panel for this purpose. The ARM specifically provides that the CAO would issue the revised authorisations within a grade, while the initial authorisation had to be issued by the GOC and the CAO.
Independent Review’s Conclusions and Recommendations
Having reviewed all available documentation relating to the matter going back over a number of years, the Review Team concluded that it was clear that the individual member who made the Disclosure, had and has concerns, about the then developing situation in relation to sheet metal work operation in the Air Corps. Part of this, by his own admission, related to the impact it had on his own career prospects, but also to a belief that only a qualified and experienced trade specialist like himself, could inspect and sign off on work done by another trade person. To put it another way it was the belief of the member who made the Disclosure that only personnel qualified within the trade of sheet metal fabrication could be inspectors and approve work by those qualified in the trade.
While it may be the case that the persons concerned had never been employed in the functional area of the Sheet Metal Shop, there is no such requirement laid out in the Air Regulations Manual. Accordingly the Review Team concluded that the approach adopted by the Air Corps for the authorisations of sheet metal works, would not be unusual in the civil aviation sector. They noted that the civilian aircraft maintenance licence (known as Part 66 Licence) is issued to an aircraft mechanic on completion of a specified amount of theory training and practical experience. The licence is issued by National Aviation Authorities in each EU member state and it meets the requirements of relevant European Union regulation (EU1321/2014) [EU Regulation 1321/2014 replaced Regulation 2042/2003 to consolidate years of amendments but the thrust and content remain the same].
There are a number of categories each of which sets out the licence holder certification privileges. Each category requires certain levels of training and experience. The 81 category relates to airframe, engine and electrical work. This licence category (81) permits the holder to certify his/her own work and the work of others on mechanical and electrical systems of large or small aircraft and areas such as hydraulic, sheet-metal and composite.
The Review Team went on to find that:-
- While there was some procedural/documentation deficiencies and errors there was, in their view, nothing of substance that would impact on the overall operations of the Air Corps, nor were there any issues of flight safety being compromised.
- From their review of the processes, procedures and documentation, they found no evidence to indicate that false or misleading information was deliberately given to superiors, or that information was withheld from them. Errors were made, but again there is no evidence to suggest that these were deliberate in any way.
- The review lead them to a view that the Air Corps would benefit from a more centralised process for retaining documentation relating to training, experience for the purpose of supporting issuance of authorisations. Copies of all documentation required to support the issue of an approval should be retained in the approval file.
- Revisions to the ARM relating to the certifying and authorisation process for aircraft inspectors were made in January 2015. While this was an improvement on the earlier version the Review Team felt that there was further scope for clarification and simplification of the process.
- As part of their review they examined a range of technical records and worksheets on aircraft repairs carried out over the last number of years. They believe that the current processes and documentation would benefit from an examination that would aim to, inter alia,
- Improve the archiving system for aircraft records,
- provide a clear indication in the repair records of classification major or minor per ARM, part E section 2, para 2.9,
- provide a drawing as part of the record in cases where a part is manufactured in the workshop,
- provide a clear indication in the repair documents of the location on the aircraft where the repair is made,
- provide references or better references in the repair records of the source of the repair data e.g. SRM section, page, paragraph or other manual such as AMM or CMM etc.,
- clarify who decides and approves the details of all repairs prior to accomplishment (It seems that the sheet metal shop is developing the repairs in many instances).
- In selecting a range of sheet metal records to review, it was noted that a small number of these records could not be located initially and they formed part of a larger selection of records that were not readily available to the Air Corps at the time of the Review Team’s request. While the records were eventually located and secured for the Review Team, the issue of the integrity and security of such important records is a matter that should be addressed by Air Corps management.
- Finally, in their view, civil aviation practice and norms are followed to the extent possible by the Air Corps. Their understanding is that throughout Europe military aviation authorities as far as possible aim to align their procedures and process to civilian aviation standards and that this is the way forward.