If you are a DOM for a Part 135 air carrier, you have likely signed an airworthiness release to return an aircraft to service after an inspection or repair. You may have even done so without doing any of the actual work, but rather relying upon other mechanics that actually performed the inspection or repair. However, as a recent opinion issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) shows, you may be signing the airworthiness release at your own peril.
In Administrator v. Creighton, a Part 135 air carrier contracted with the mechanic to use his hangar and equipment to perform a “C” check and installation of a TAWS/EGPWS in an Embraer 120, N267AS, an aircraft operated by the air carrier. The air carrier’s director of maintenance supervised the progress of the work on the check, but resigned before the work was completed. The mechanic subsequently agreed to supervise completion of the “C” check and later returned N267AS to service by signing a release indicating the aircraft was airworthy. After being returned to service, the air carrier operated N267AS 58 days. However, at some point the FAA received a complaint about N267AS from a mechanic who worked on the aircraft during the “C” check.
As you might imagine, the FAA performed an investigation into maintenance on N267AS, which ultimately resulted in the FAA issuing an emergency revocation order revoking the mechanic’s certificate and A & P ratings. The FAA alleged that the mechanic returned N267AS to service in an unairworthy condition based upon the existence of severe corrosion in several places, an inoperable TAWS/EGPWS, and multiple paperwork violations with regard to the maintenance performed on N267AS.
In response, the mechanic stated that he was not present for ninety percent of the “C” check and argued that his signing of the airworthiness release did not make him responsible for the work performed because he reasonably relied upon the other mechanics’ completed task cards indicating that they performed certain work on N267AS. Under the “reasonably reliance” defense, if a particular task is the responsibility of another, if the airmen asserting the defense has no independent obligation (e.g., based on the operating procedures or manuals) or ability to ascertain the information, and if the airmen has no reason to question the other’s performance, then no violation will be found.
After a lengthy hearing before an NTSB administrative law judge (“ALJ”), the ALJ rejected the mechanic’s reasonable reliance defense and affirmed the FAA’s emergency revocation order. The mechanic then appealed to the full NTSB arguing, among other things, that he reasonably relied upon the work of the other mechanics and, thus, was not responsible for his signature on the airworthiness release form.
On appeal, the Board rejected the mechanic’s reasonable reliance defense. The Board initially observed that the mechanic undertook the duties of DOM after the resignation of the previous DOM and thereby assumed the DOM’s duty to ensure that N267AS was in an airworthy condition before he signed the airworthiness release. It went on to note that the airworthiness release included a citation to FAR 135.443, which provides that an air carrier’s aircraft must have a signed airworthiness release after undergoing maintenance before it can be operated and the airworthiness release must be prepared in accordance with the air carrier’s manual.
The Board went on to state that the doctrine of reasonable reliance is a narrow one and with respect to maintenance on an aircraft, “anyone who approves an aircraft for return to service may not simply assume that others have done what needs to be done.” It then agreed with the ALJ’s finding that “[the mechanic] accepted full responsibility for the proper completion of the entire inspection when he took on the job of supervising the inspection and signed the airworthiness release.”
The Board also observed that he airworthiness release that the mechanic signed incorporated by reference FAR 135.443, “which requires a statement that no known discrepancies exist, and that the aircraft is airworthy, in accordance with the applicable maintenance manual.” Further, the Board deferred to the FAA’s interpretation of FAR 135.443 as requiring an authorized individual to sign the airworthiness release, and that the mechanic, acting in his capacity as DOM for the air carrier, maintained that authority. As a result, the Board concluded that the mechanic’s alleged claimed reliance upon various mechanics’ work on N267AS was not reasonable under the circumstances, nor did it excuse the mechanic’s culpability in returning the aircraft to service.
This case presents a good lesson as to the responsibility and risk associated with a DOM’s signing an airworthiness release, or aircraft logbook for that matter, and returning the aircraft to service when the DOM didn’t actually perform the work. In that situation, the DOM will be held accountable for the work that was, or was not performed; regardless of who did or did not perform the required work.
The moral of the story is that a DOM needs to confirm that all work required by an aircraft and air carrier’s manuals was actually performed and satisfy him or herself that the work that was performed was done in accordance with the manuals. If this isn’t done, a DOM takes a chance that he or she could be held responsible for improper or omitted work. Don’t let this happen: Be diligent and be safe.
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