JetStar owners irate about ADs

 - March 7, 2007, 10:04 AM

Lockheed Martin has recommended to the FAA that the agency upgrade to Airworthiness Directives a series of service bulletins developed over the past 18 months for the L-329 JetStar, one of the first U.S. business jets, to ensure compliance. The bulletins will quantify life limits on some aircraft components not previously restricted such as the JetStar’s wing attachment bolts, tail pivot fittings, flaps and flap tracks, nosewheel steering cylinder assembly and, in some cases, engine pylon mounts.

The restrictions are expected to cover all U.S.-registered JetStars (about 35 are currently flying) and another handful operating outside the U.S. Lockheed built slightly more than 200 of the aircraft line, which includes the JetStar and the JetStar II as well as an STC model in which Garrett TFE731s replace the original Pratt & Whitney engines.

While ADs are not unusual in aviation, especially on a nearly 50-year-old airplane, current JetStar operators fear that the cost of the work represents a large percentage of the airplane’s value and might spell the end of the line for the type. Parts and labor estimates range from $200,000 to well over $300,000, depending on the condition of the aircraft. Before this uncertainty, the best JetStar on the market would probably have fetched no more than $2 million.

The JetStar has no history of accidents related to parts failures. The only recorded accidents in the aircraft were attributed to pilot error. There have been incidents with the aircraft, however, such as a flap separation on approach to Houston and a few nosewheel steering incidents in which the pilots lost control on the ground due to a system failure.

The JetStar was designed by famed Skunkworks engineer Kelly Johnson, the man behind the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, T-33 and SR-71. Johnson also assisted on the P-38 Lightning, the Constellation and the C-130.

JetStar operators AIN spoke with are eager to determine the airworthiness of their aircraft. Lockheed post-production support manager Herb O’Connell said that is the company’s first priority as well, adding, “While we’re concerned about parts prices, our most important concern is safety [of the JetStar fleet].” O’Connell said the company does not “feel comfortable” increasing the frequency of parts inspections.

The good news for JetStar operators is that the FAA has not yet officially decided to make most recent Service Bulletins into an AD, although sources say the agency is headed in that direction. No paperwork means that for right now, no operator can yet verify whether his aircraft will be affected.

The bad news is that if an operator did learn that his serial number was affected, especially with the tight compliance time frame most sources indicate the FAA would expect, most of the aircraft would probably be grounded since the necessary parts do not currently exist.

Lockheed no longer makes parts for the JetStar but instead has a deal with West Chester, Ohio-based Hi Tech Aero Spares to build them. Hi Tech says it will subcontract the work as well, which adds an additional wrinkle for owners. Further complicating matters is the fact that Hi Tech is worried it might be stuck with a parts inventory it can’t sell, so it is demanding a 50-percent deposit from operators before it cuts the first piece of metal.

Operators feel caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place because Lockheed will not share the results of the structural testing it has performed to support the upcoming service bulletins/ ADs. O’Connell said the data to support the claims is with the FAA and is currently confidential.

“[The] FAA has told OEMs not to talk about these sorts of things at this stage. But we do believe that the crack growth [on the current parts] is so fast that there is no other way to deal with this before they fail.” In an original Operator Maintenance Report dated March 2005, Lockheed stated an updated empennage pivot would not be life limited. Under the upcoming service bulletin, the pivot bolts will have a life limit, indicating things have clearly changed.

O’Connell was unclear about whether the JetStar situation called for the issuance of an Emergency AD grounding the airplanes until the work was completed. A source at the FAA said he did not believe an Emergency AD was imminent.

During a recent conference call between operators and the company, Larry Simpkins, a Virginia-based pilot and A&P technician, said, “All through the calls Lockheed kept telling us they were dedicated to serving the needs of the user, which sounded over the top to me. I just don’t believe them.”

He added that many operators are particularly unhappy about the arbitrary time limits–approximately 150 hours–Lockheed has set to accomplish the work for the upcoming AD. “Many of these aircraft have never had some of these fittings completely removed so the time required may be much greater than anyone knows.” Lockheed’s disclaimer acknowledges that aircraft downtime might be longer than 150 hours. It reads, “The work prescribed in this publication [service bulletin] has not been performed by a Lockheed Martin facility; estimated manpower has not been validated.”

Simpkins also believes that even if the FAA does not turn the bulletins into an AD, Lockheed will ensure compliance by setting arbitrarily low life limits on parts. Many JetStars in the fleet have between 5,000 and 9,000 hours total time. (The L-1011 TriStar airliners Lockheed also supports often have close to 50,000 hours.) Operators are loath to shell out cash deposits–roughly $35,000 to $40,000–for parts they might not need, particularly since Hi Tech has offered them no delivery timetable.

John Poffenbarger, a South Florida JetStar operator, said, “I think the point of all this effort is that Lockheed Martin just wants the airplanes to disappear.” Other operators share that opinion. One of the largest military contractors in the world, Lockheed no longer builds any civil transport aircraft and therefore has little reputation to lose with future buyers. The company makes no money on JetStar parts and is saddled with a liability albatross should someone crash one. To many, it appears that Lockheed simply finds it easier to require everyone to fix almost everything to reduce risk. “If there is empirical evidence of failures, why not share it with us?” Poffenbarger asked. “I don’t want to fly an unsafe aircraft. But if there isn’t any data, where did all of this come from? We’re already doing regular inspections and non-destructive testing on this airplane.”

Observers believe that the JetStar is simply receiving the same treatment as other old business aircraft, a product of the “fix them or dump them” philosophy based on the FAA’s aging aircraft mission, which explains “original aircraft maintenance plans were not required to address potential age-related issues.”

JetStar owners and operators have begun brainstorming online at a Yahoo group and are planning a gathering in Atlanta where they hope to meet Lockheed representatives. Poffenbarger said he understands that owning an old airplane means accepting the cost of keeping it airworthy, but he added that the next move in the parts game is up to Lockheed and the FAA.

“We’re not dealing the cards here,” he said. “If this work needs to be done and [Lockheed] has proof it needs to be done, I’ll be the first in line. But I won’t have it jammed down my throat.” Simpkins concluded that a lot of JetStar operators are concerned by what they believe is Lockheed Martin’s overreaction to a couple of mechanical incidents.

Not all manufacturers apply the same approach to their older airplanes. Cessna Aircraft, still a dominant player in the civil market and intent on staying there, devotes a team of technicians to legacy aircraft at each of its 10 service centers around the U.S. Cessna’s director of service facilities, Stan Younger, explained, “If you buy a Citation, you’re our customer for life. We can’t afford to let customers think we won’t be there for them.”