In spite of our best efforts, we are sometimes lead down a path of deception and destruction. A customer relayed this story to me a couple of weeks ago. It was so haunting I felt compelled to share it. It’s a true story, but the names, places, aircraft model, dates, and anything else that might expose the innocent, or the guilty, have been intentionally and mercifully changed. The telling of it is painful, amazing, sad, surprising and revealing of our nature to accept certain assumptions without question.
Some might start with “once upon a time,” but this event calls for a phrase my youngest daughter (now 24 years old) usually starts an unfortunate story with ; “Well,,,,see,,,, what happened was…
…. Mark wanted a BigTwin to use for frequent long cross country business travels. The BigTwin was fairly unique, so the pre-purchase records review was performed by a type knowledgeable mechanic. All looked in order. An A&P with IA was found to perform a pre-purchase evaluation, and all looked good except an alternator that failed on the check flight. The alternator was replace by the BigTwin mechanic for just over $1K and check flights commenced.
Three days after the type check out rides were completed, the alternator came loose and migrated to the starter ring gear. Much commotion and damage occurred, culminating in an emergency landing. Further inspection revealed the crank shaft was damaged. The small shop that performed the alternator installation had no insurance, no cash, and no assets. A mere $70K later for the engine repair and legal fees puts the airplane back in flying condition.
A short time later the cabin pressurization failed. Apparently, an upholstery screw penetrated a pressure duct causing debris to find the pressure relief valve. Only $20K for repairs this time.
Next the right engine began showing fuel flow fluctuations. A new fuel filler cap mount had been installed at some point in the past with bolts that were too long. They began to rust and contaminated the fuel system. A quick inspection revealed the left fuel tank had been done the same way. Only $25 this time, but confidence in the plane is waning.
Then a maintenance shop suggested the hydraulic system needed the odd type fluid replaced with the more common and less hazardous MIL-5606. A few flights later, on a trip from “one coast” to the “other coast”, the landing gear wasn’t working correctly. The type club forum was consulted with the overwhelming consensus that BillyJoeBob (BJB) was the best mechanic on the “other coast” for the type airplane.
BJB realized the change in the type of hydraulic fluid was not preceded by replacement of all seals and o-rings with parts compatible with MIL-5606. Resealing all the actuators and servicing the system was just another $15K.
So far we’ve chalked up incredible expenses, some legitimate and some a result of having mere mortals involved in the process. One might say one or more of the mechanics involved was negligent, but we don’t know that. Mechanics don’t want the plane to have troubles any more than the pilot. Mechanics also don’t make any more mistakes than pilots do. It’s just that most small mistakes by mechanics yield visible symptoms, unlike the pilot’s mistakes.
As a pilot, I know we make lots of mistakes every flight: missed radio calls, not holding altitude within proper limits, not holding heading spot on, not performing complete preflights, not taxing on the centerline, not holding the ball perfectly centered at all times. But of course, we never make anything but a perfect landing.
To be clear; this discussion is not about mechanics going awry or owners authorizing the wrong work. This is about how assuming we are of others’ qualifications.
The Real Beginning
This brings us to the first annual inspection after the purchase. No one on the “one coast” can be found willing or able to do the job. The type club forum is consulted again, but the only tech recommended was BJB back out on the “other coast.” The cost and logistics worked out better to import BJB instead of exporting the BigTwin. The plans are all set.
BJB is transported and set up with room and board for the duration of the inspection on the “one coast.” The inspection commences, and all goes with RELATIVE ease considering the event to date. Only $30K this time, but ALL is done.
The t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted and the log books are handed over to the now financially exhausted owner. As every astute owner would do, Mark actually read the maintenance record entries. Everything looked fine except the name at the bottom. Instead of the expected BJB, it read Guido. Maybe BJB is just a nickname?
Without hesitation or hint of concern, BJB informed Mark that all was well. He explained that he had permission from Guido to sign Guido’s name for annuals. In fact, BJB had been doing this for years, and Guido was a close friend. Even if Mark didn’t know that no IA can sublet his/her authority to do an annual inspect, he knew for certain signing another’s name is fraudulent. Mark is now in a state of disbelief.
With no reason to keep BJB on the payroll, Mark exports BJB back to the “other coast” and ponders his next step. The airplane is airworthy in every respect but for want of a signature.
Mark is now on the trail to find Guido. It is nteresting to note that BJB didn’t have contact information for his long time friend. Initial searches were unsuccessful. Subsequently a call was made to the FAA. Armed with the Guido’s IA certificate number, Mark is able to obtain address information from the FAA public records. Mark finds a phone number and calls Guido only to discover he passed away two weeks prior to the date on the fraudulent annual inspection log entry. Mark’s initial disbelief is now replaced with surreal incredulity. How can this possibly be happening?
There is hope that BJB could use his FAA mechanic’s certificate to sign off the repairs and the inspection as a 100 hour instead of an annual. Another IA could perform a real annual with some confidence that all discrepancies had already been taken care of.
A call to BJB, safely on the “other coast,” reveals he never had an FAA airframe or powerplant certificate. Unimaginable!
The FAA is a bit limited in what they can do in this situation since BJB doesn’t have any kind of certificate against which they can take action. The FBI got involved and eventually called Mark for his cooperation in their federal fraud case against BJB. Seven months later Mark testifies to a grand jury. Eighteen months later the trial begins. Five years later a compensation check is received in the amount of a whopping $5,000.00 Remember, even though he’s not certificated, BJB has been working as a mechanic for many years earning mechanic’s wages, so there aren’t any deep pockets to sue.
The aviation community operates in an amazing culture of trust. Owners trust mechanics when they’re told some major mechanical expense is required on their plane. After said repair, mechanics trust owners to take the plane away without payment. When was the last time you actually asked a pilot friend if he was current when you rode with him/her for that $300 hamburger? I don’t know how to tactfully ask a mechanic if he/she is truly certificated, but you might want to consider it.
While this story sounds way over the top, it really happened. Truly it is an unfortunate set of circumstances that any of us could have fallen into. However, just one simple question asked at the right time would have diverted the entire mess: Can I see your certificate?