JetStar operators in limbo over service issues

 - September 26, 2007, 8:36 AM

The long-running dispute between JetStar operators and Lockheed Martin continues, as the two dozen or so owners of the remaining 36 U.S.-registered Lockheed L-329 JetStars say they are just about out of patience with the defense contractor. Lockheed Martin inherited JetStar support under the same agreement through which it supports the L-1011 TriStar airliner. It has not produced either aircraft in decades.

The controversy centers around Lockheed’s worries about the aging JetStar’s fitness for flight and user claims that the company has withheld from users much information related to the safe operation of the aircraft.

JetStar owners have said that Lockheed’s often contradictory policies regarding servicing of the aircraft have impeded their attempts to guarantee the airworthiness of their aircraft. Lockheed sent paperwork to the FAA earlier this year intent on seeing a number of current service bulletins rolled into an Airworthiness Directive to life-limit many parts the manufacturer considers critical to air safety. The FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) about that AD earlier this year, but it has not yet finalized the directive.

JetStar loyalists established a Yahoo user group in January that links a dozen L-329 operators, many of whom are puzzled by Lockheed’s reaction to the numerous questions raised about service issues related to the potential AD action. The group recently morphed into the JetStar Operators Action Group, signaling operators’ commitment to addressing the issues with their aircraft.

The chief pilot of a Northern California company that operates seven JetStars said, “Lockheed is closed-mouthed about the JetStar, and I think [the FAA was] hasty in issuing the NPRM.”

JetStar pilot Larry Simpkins, moderator of the Yahoo group and a licensed A&P mechanic, has expressed frustration that Lockheed is prepared to take AD action without sharing with owners any of the confirming engineering data. Simpkins recently took his group’s concerns to Lockheed chairman Robert Stevens in a letter demanding clear and timely responses to the group’s concerns.

The California operator questioned Lockheed’s motivations and commented, “[Lockheed has] been very poor at communicating incidents to other JetStar operators. In some cases it said absolutely nothing to anyone after a problem appeared (for example, a JetStar lost a flap during an arrival into Houston in 2004 and they issued no notification). The company hopes that if it puts out enough ADs, the JetStar will simply go away.”

For its part, Lockheed has raised specific technical questions about the serviceability of the wing attach bolts, tail pivot fittings, flaps and flap tracks and engine pylon mounts. The nosewheel steering system–which the NTSB cited as the probable cause for at least two airframe losses–has proved a problem for the JetStar. The content of a Lockheed service bulletin released last year details the company perspective on an issue that has rankled operators.

Some June 2007 Lockhead correspondence said, “The nose landing gear (NLG) steering cylinder [of the JetStar] has experienced multiple in-service failures throughout the life of the JetStar.” The bulletin cited cracks and corrosion as a reason to demand replacement of nosewheel steering assemblies on aircraft with more than 2,100 landings, or almost all of the JetStars in service.

According to the company, “The NLG steering cylinder…is a very real problem, and it is quite likely that more service failures will occur in the fleet unless addressed soon… Lockheed Martin believes that the most pragmatic and safe solution is to replace the steering cylinder assemblies with the JL1955-13 as soon as possible. We know that 13 (qty) steering cylinders are currently available from Hi-Tech Aero Spares and are taking action to ensure that more will be available on an expedited basis to support replacement.”

The operators have taken a different view. Simpkins claims, “Lockheed found these spares to be mechanically flawed and took them out of circulation. There are now none available, making compliance with the nosewheel steering service bulletin impossible.” Additionally, an odd time element in the delivery of the bulletins emerged this year. “On March 19, 2007, we all received an e-mail from Lockheed Martin containing SB 329-300 Revision C…dated Sept. 5, 2006,” Simpkins said.

“The bulletin required replacement of the steering cylinder within 30 days of the published date on the bulletin. When I questioned Lockheed Martin about the 195-day gap between the date on the bulletins, Sept. 5, 2006, and our receipt of them in March 2007 Lockheed stated the delay was related to the transmission of the documents to the FAA for approval. Lockheed seemed to believe that it had no responsibility for the gap.”

Another issue is the engineering drawings the SB requires to accomplish the work even if parts did exist. According to operators, Lockheed refuses to share those drawings. Simpkins commented, “That’s historical evidence of the life of this [nosewheel steering] part. Lockheed has done nothing to solve this problem.” An NTSB report on one JetStar accident also labeled the nosewheel steering drawing as questionable.

“JetStar owners and operators are appalled that data required to accomplish airworthiness and safety Service Bulletin 329-300 Revision C is being withheld because the drawing is, according to your engineering department, ‘not necessary for the safe operation of the JetStar,’” wrote Simpkins. His letter also takes Lockheed vice president of engineering Tom Blakely to task for allegedly knowing that earlier service bulletin revisions were not delivered “for more than six years and then only to operators that requested them.”

One operator said, “As JetStar operators, we should be concerned about the actions taken by Lockheed Martin with regard to information relating to the airworthiness and safety of our aircraft. It took nine months to get a handbook of maintenance instructions (HOMI) revision through the Lockheed Martin signature cycle. Unfortunately, this is not the only instance of delays in getting airworthiness and safety information to the JetStar community.”

Communications Woes
A JetStar operator in the south believes the poor customer communications are easier to explain than the procedural problems. “I’ve been an operator for ten years. The first seven, I never received one piece of communication from Lockheed,” he said. “Because of the way Lockheed communicates about this aircraft, we’re not really sure what we are supposed to be doing. [I think that Lockheed] as a defense contractor is not in the business of listening to customers. I’m willing to give Lockheed the benefit of the doubt, but not for much longer.”

A Lockheed spokeswoman acknowledged that communications between all parties could be improved. “Lockheed Martin has made considerable revisions to the service bulletins. We expect to provide the revised SBs to the FAA by early October. We expect the final revision will contain no reference to the drawings and these SBs will contain all necessary information and will reference the official LM-published and FAA-approved Handbook of Operating and Maintenance Instructions.”

A spokeswoman for the FAA–the agency responsible for issuing airworthiness directives–told AIN, “We believe the owners of the affected JetStar aircraft have the technical information they need to complete the work outlined in the service bulletins. The work must be performed by an appropriate approved repair station that is rated to do that type of work. The FAA has seen both problems related to fatigue and stress corrosion. As far as Lockheed’s response to owners, our understanding is that Lockheed has had conference calls with the owners to address their concerns.” The agency would not discuss the issue of parts shortages.

The Lockheed spokeswoman told AIN, “Lockheed Martin has responded to numerous requests from JetStar operators and will continue to do so. In fact, a communication is being generated this week [Sept. 17, 2007] that will provide the operators with an update on the status of the JetStar Service Bulletins.

“While Lockheed Martin’s design and analysis methods are proprietary, we have gone to great lengths to provide as much technical information to the operators as possible. Recently we supplied a technical paper at the request of one of our operators that went into considerable detail on the field service history, the technical conclusions we reached, the options we considered and the rationale for life limiting these parts. That information was shared on a public Web site with all JetStar operators.”

Simpkins and other operators said the technical paper does not reach nearly far enough to answer user questions. The group has not ruled out legal action to obtain what it says it needs.

Lockheed added, “A proposed Airworthiness Directive regarding the nose landing-gear steering cylinders has just passed through the FAA NPRM review period and received a number of comments. We recommend operators follow all instructions when they receive the service bulletin to ensure continued airworthiness.”

JetStar operators still feel in limbo as they consider their next move. According to the manufacturer’s spokeswoman, “During this interim period between SBs, we recognize some of our operators might have questions.We encourage them to contact the JetStar Support Center.”

“What’s the point of that?” Simpkins wondered. “They never answer the questions anyway.”