From PAMA.org (Professional Aviation Maintenance Association)

November 09, 2007

FAA Hasn’t Tracked Fraudulently Certified Airplane Mechanics

(CNSNews.com) – About 1,000 poorly trained or even untrained airplane mechanics have not been accounted for by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and could be working for the nation’s airlines.

Further, investigators do not know yet whether the mechanics who worked on a plane, which crashed and killed 20 people in 2005, were among those mechanics who were poorly trained or untrained.

The federal government has confirmed that it is investigating the FAA’s tracking of airline mechanics that obtained fraudulent certification from St. George Aviation, a Florida company whose owner was convicted on federal charges for issuing fraudulent licenses in the late 1990s.

Though the FAA was tasked with retesting at least 1,800 mechanics who obtained phony certificates from the company, fewer than half of those were retested. Also, the agency does not know where any of the mechanics who graduated from St. George are working now, FAA spokeswoman Allison Duquette told Cybercast News Service.

The federal agency charged with aviation safety responded to 12 written questions more than three weeks after Cybercast News Service submitted its inquiry. The questions had to be reviewed by counsel, Duquette said.

“The FAA does not have data on where St. George alumni are working,” Duquette said in a written statement.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) referred the matter for investigation to the Department of Transportation (DOT). An Oct. 23 letter from OSC disclosure unit attorney Karen P. Gorman said there was “substantial likelihood that serious safety concerns persist in the management and operation of maintenance programs at FAA.”

Gorman said the DOT had 60 days to conduct the investigation and report back to the OSC.

At least 1,000 unqualified mechanics could still be employed at airlines, said Gabriel Bruno, the former FAA director of flight standards, who exposed agency lapses first to the DOT’s Office of Inspector General, then to the OSC.

“These people are working for major air carriers,” Bruno told Cybercast News Service, referring to the certificate holders from St. George. “The FAA didn’t do enough to retrieve these people. They just want to bury it.”

The former FAA manager-turned-whistleblower specifically asked the Office of Special Counsel – which already verified his past claims of poor FAA oversight – to probe whether mechanics with certification from St. George had worked on a flight that crashed in late 2005.

After a Chalk’s International Airlines seaplane took off from Miami in December 2005 heading to the Bahamas, the right wing fell off, sending two crewmen and 18 passengers to their death. The reason for the crash was poor maintenance and lack of government oversight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The NTSB report did not address where the mechanics in charge of the maintenance of this aircraft were trained.

Rajan Nair, general manager for Chalk’s, could not confirm if any of his mechanics were certified at St. George. But he told Cybercast News Service that the man who worked on the wing as part of the airframe for the specific plane that crashed had been with the company more than three decades, and thus would not have received certification in the late 1990s.

St. George fiasco

Federal prosecutors determined that at least 1,800 mechanics received false certification from St. George Aviation near Orlando between October 1995 and January 1999.

At the trial of company owner Anthony R. St. George and examiner George E.

Allen, employees and mechanics reportedly testified the certification tests that were supposed to take up to eight hours took only a few minutes.

In some cases the company provided answers to test-takers, and in others issued certificates when major portions of the test weren’t even taken.

St. George and Allen were convicted in May 1999 of fraud and conspiracy.

That August, they were sentenced to a combined 40 months in prison.

The special counsel’s letter to Bruno last month, confirming the investigation would proceed, said, “You disclosed that these mechanics are now employed with major airlines; their reexamination status is questionable and FAA has not taken sufficient steps to ensure they are actually qualified for the position they hold.”

“You also alleged that neither the DOT nor the FAA has established a system to check the certification or reexamination status of mechanics who may have been involved in the maintenance of an aircraft when a crash occurs because of a mechanical problem,” the OSC letter to Bruno continued.

Thus far, 717 mechanics out of more than 1,800 have been retested, Duquette said. Of those, 64 percent passed the written and oral exams and 36 percent failed.

The FAA began a retesting program shortly after the discovery of the certification fraud, but agency management abruptly stopped the program in spring 2001 after only 130 mechanics took the test, federal investigators found.

The inspector general’s and then the OSC’s probe began after Bruno brought the FAA’s actions to their attention. In June 2005, the OSC repeated the Department of Transportation’s call for the FAA to reinstate testing.

“Nothing could be more central to the nation’s overall security and well-being of our citizenry than aviation safety of which the aviation mechanics and inspectors form a critical link,” U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch said in a June 2005 statement. “Thanks to the efforts of whistleblowers, a problem was identified and is being corrected.”

The FAA disputes the findings of investigators that the testing was ever stopped.

“The FAA did not cancel the retesting program, the FAA did postpone the retesting program in 2004 to re-evaluate the program,” Duquette said. “The program was re-evaluated and continued in the spring of 2005.”

Yet Bruno said the agency never restarted the testing in an adequate way.

Airline mechanics must normally pass three components before they are certified, Bruno said: a written exam, an oral exam, and a practical or hands-on exam. But since the retesting has started, Bruno said, the retesting is still missing the hands-on component.

The FAA doesn’t dispute that.

“FAA felt administration of a written and oral exam was an adequate form of reexamination for the purpose of establishing qualifications to hold their certificates,” Duquette said.

“The FAA did not feel it was necessary to hold the mechanic to a proficient knowledge on all aspects of the practical exam when the airmen were only dealing with a particular area,” Duquette added.

No ‘cross reference’

Bruno thinks it is unfortunate that the NTSB did not cross-reference any of the mechanics who worked on the Chalk’s International Airlines flight that crashed in December 2005, when the wing fell off, with the list of those mechanics who obtained phony certificates from St. George.

In a June 29 letter, Bruno asked Special Counsel Bloch to explore if there was a connection.

“My disclosures to you of the St. George Aviation criminal activity and resultant multitude of fraudulently issued mechanic certificates, that the FAA allowed to remain active in the aviation industry, is directly relevant to an investigation into faulty aircraft maintenance and inadequate FAA oversight,” Bruno wrote in the letter to Bloch.

The letter points out that the NTSB did not report on any interviews with Chalk’s.

“The NTSB did not report if any of those mechanics held certificates fraudulently obtained from St. George’s criminal enterprise. This shortcoming raises questions as to whether Chalk’s was relying on unqualified mechanics to recognize and repair deficiencies of its aging aircraft,” the letter said.

An NTSB spokesman simply deferred to the report on the crash, which didn’t address where mechanics were trained.

The name St. George Aviation doesn’t ring a bell for Nair, general manager for Chalk’s airlines, but he said he couldn’t know for certain if any of the St. George alumni worked for his company.

“I could not even go back that far and figure out where they came from,”

Nair told Cybercast News Service. “We make sure they have a genuine license.

We do a drug check. We do a background check, the normal things that the FAA requires us to do, both on the pilots and the mechanics.”

As was the case with the staff who worked on the wing of the doomed plane, Nair said most of his mechanics have a lot of experience.

“Most of our mechanics at Chalk’s have been with us a very, very long time,”

Nair said. “Some of my lead mechanics have been here 18, 20, 25 years. My director of maintenance was here at least 18 years. My chief shop manager was here in a total excess of 30 years. I really don’t know if we had any youngsters that came along in the late 90s.”

Duquette said that the FAA works hard to affirm planes are safe.

“The FAA is confident in the quality of the maintenance work performed on U.S. commercial airplanes and that qualified mechanics are performing that work,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Air Transport Association, an industry group that represents the commercial airlines industry, said in a statement for this story:

“Airlines work collaboratively with FAA to ensure full compliance with all safety-related directives. We currently have the safest air transportation system in the world, and that is not by accident.”

However, Bruno thinks this is just one instance of larger problems with FAA dropping the ball.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I know FAA inspectors who would rather drive their car than get in an airplane.”

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