How old is too old for a general aviation aircraft? That's the question the FAA is wrestling with. And AOPA is working with the agency to arrive at some reasonable answers.
Just last week, AOPA technical specialists were part of an FAA-industry meeting in Kansas City on T-34 aircraft. These former military trainers, similar to the Beechcraft Bonanza, were grounded late last year following the third in-flight breakup of a T-34 used in mock aerial combat. The FAA considers the T-34s to be the "canaries in the coal mine," the very early indicators of problems that might crop up with other aging aircraft years from now.
"These T-34s were flown to the extreme corners of the envelope and exposed to stress and fatigue cycles much greater than an aircraft flown in the normal or utility category," said Luis Gutierrez, AOPA director of certification and regulatory policy. "But with the average age of GA aircraft now exceeding 30 years, the FAA is increasingly concerned about the potential for failures in any older aircraft."
The FAA is considering options that could return some of the low-time T-34s to airworthiness quickly, and airframe inspections and modifications that could get some of the higher-time aircraft back in the air as well.
"Aircraft structures do wear out," said Gutierrez. "Every landing, every jolt of turbulence, flexes critical structures and causes metal fatigue. Eventually, something will break. That's why ongoing airworthiness efforts are so important."
Most GA aircraft flying today were certified under the old CAR 3 standards, which did not set a life-limit for aircraft components. Newer aircraft (such as the Commander 112 and 114 and the offerings from Cirrus and Lancair) are certified under FAR Part 23, which requires the manufacturer to establish a life-limit - in flight hours - for critical structures such as wing spars. For example, the pressurized P58 Baron (unlike its siblings in the Beechcraft line) is Part 23 certified and has a 10,000-hour wing spar limit.
"Even though we believe that our older aircraft are still safe, there is no question that the FAA is reevaluating the way it deals with aging general aviation aircraft," said Gutierrez. "AOPA will be there to make sure that we take the necessary steps to ensure continued safety while also doing everything possible to keep these aircraft flying and affordable."
February 24, 2005