How serious is the Beechcraft Bonanza-Baron spar web cracking problem? AOPA and the American Bonanza Society (ABS) are working together to find out. Two experienced aerospace structures engineers have been contracted to determine what causes the cracks in the carry-through structure, bulkhead flanges, and fuselage skins. And more importantly, data are being collected to determine what are the real safety issues and if the "cure" is worse than the problem.
The issue directly concerns all owners of Bonanzas, Debonairs, Travel Airs, and normally aspirated Barons built between 1957 and the late 1980s.
"But this issue will ultimately affect owners of any older aircraft, said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of Government and Technical Affairs. "That's because the FAA has changed its policy concerning cracks in structural members. Simply put, no more cracks."
Previously (as was the case for the Beechcraft spar web), the FAA allowed, with periodic inspection, the existence of some cracks not deemed to be structurally significant (in many cases, the cracks could be stop-drilled). But with rising concern about aging aircraft, the FAA is becoming less tolerant of cracks and other indicators of metal fatigue.
At the FAA's instigation, Raytheon Aircraft Corporation (current manufacturer of Beech aircraft) recently issued mandatory service bulletins requiring inspection for and repair of any crack in the spar assemblies. And while Part 91 operators don't have to comply with the service bulletins right now, if the FAA changes the airworthiness directives, the new service bulletins would become mandatory for everyone.
What that would mean is that aircraft that have continued to be operated for many years and many hours with known cracks under continued inspection would no longer be allowed to do so. Owners would have to install a spar repair kit.
But that brings with it a whole other set of problems. Installation of the kit is a delicate matter; done improperly, it may weaken the structure rather than reinforcing it. And there is a question whether Raytheon can produce enough kits to quickly repair affected aircraft.
But there is dispute among various experts about whether the Bonanza-Baron cracking represents safety risk. Some contend the area where the cracks are most common is not structural.
This is where AOPA and ABS have stepped in.
"We've asked the FAA to give us time to develop data and research the most appropriate means of solving the problem," said Nancy Johnson, ABS executive director.
In addition to hiring aerospace engineers, ABS is collecting hard data to help evaluate the scope of the problem. Beechcraft owners are requested to answer the questionnaire on ABS's Web site.
"First and foremost, our concern is safety," said AOPA's Cebula. "This study should answer that. We also want to keep these great aircraft flying economically. Let's do what really needs to be done, but let's not fix what isn't really broken."
[See also AOPA's regulatory brief.]
July 14, 2004