Right to reply: the CAA speaks
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority generally gets a ‘bad press’ on the Internet – key.aero thought it deserved the chance to answer some current burning issues.
Gary Parsons - 18-Nov-2009
The UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), generally gets a ‘bad press’ amongst enthusiasts on Internet forums and message boards. Often cited as being ‘faceless’, bureaucratic and too risk-averse, the tag ‘Campaign Against Aviation’ is sometimes bandied about, but without any real hard evidence.
key.aero met with Padhraic (pronounced ‘Porrick’) Kelleher, Head of Airworthiness with the CAA at its offices near Gatwick Airport in Surrey. We had a range of topics to discuss, and Padhraic was happy to talk about all of them – open and engaging, he was far removed from the ‘faceless bureaucrat’ some may expect. Formerly with British Aerospace, Padhraic has held a range of CAA management and engineering posts, is a former European Joint Aviation Authorities Executive Board member and has served as the CAA's lead adviser to the UK Government on the development of the European Aviation Safety Agency.
key.aero: “If we could start with the Vulcan; I think everybody knows that the CAA has been quite supportive. It’s flown, but we had the issue in early July where the Vulcan flew in to Waddington’s International Airshow on the Thursday, but then on the Friday the Vulcan Operating Company said, “We can’t fly, our permit’s run out”. Now, a lot of people know the problem lay with the operators as the paperwork wasn’t in order, but there’s also an undercurrent that’s thinking the CAA could have been a little bit more flexible, maybe given an extension to the permit for a few days to allow it to fly at the airshow. Can you tell me what actually happened behind the scenes and all the efforts that were made to make it happen?
Vulcan B2 XH558/G-VLCN has had a highly successful 2009 season and the CAA is fully supportive of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust's efforts. Key - Gary ParsonsPadhraic Kelleher: “I’m pleased to have the opportunity. I remember hearing the howls of protest and seeing some of the more respected journalists carrying effectively one rumour built into another, and suddenly that became ‘reality’. If it was just a simple matter of extending the permit for a couple of days, that would have happened. It wasn’t the case; sitting behind the Vulcan’s Permit to Fly is an understanding about how safe that machine is. Behind that are teams of people, not at the CAA, but in the Vulcan to the Sky Trust and Marshall Aerospace – behind those there are probably dozens of other specialist companies, and many of them very well known in the industry, who in their own way are offering support, proof, taking care that things are safe.
“The reality was that one of those very large specialist organisations was telling us they were not content with the structure of the aircraft – this only came to a head at the unfortunate time when the permit was due for renewal. In the end, when we had got the right analysis done and the right assurance in place, we had a letter that said, ‘We’ve done the work.’ That was turned round here the same day. So what was the CAA’s role? Frankly, our role was holding the ring for the other players. The thing I was amazed at was the announcement that the CAA had grounded the Vulcan! Well, I would have been the one who did it, and I can tell you I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even have the opportunity to do so!
“We took a lot of care before committing real lives getting airborne in this machine; we’re equally committed to making sure that that’s the ongoing situation as well. We’re also concerned about what will happen to onlookers and the local population if anything goes wrong. This aircraft is such a huge symbol of what the airshow circuit can do, but we don’t want it to go horribly wrong and completely tarnish that image. There’s a lot riding on getting this one right.
“It would be wrong to say the Vulcan to the Sky Trust was trying to get it airborne come what may. In fact, they were fully on board with saying they couldn’t proceed. They behaved impeccably, and just what you would hope for an organisation that’s in charge of such a fabulous symbol.
“Behind the scenes engineering tests were being done, analysis was ongoing, and there comes a point where either those are all in place to allow you to continue, or there are doubts; and where there are doubts, and they’re about issues that are significant from a safety point of view, you don’t want to commit to something that you don’t feel confident about, and that was certainly the case here.
“We’re all enthusiastic to see the aircraft safely commit to the sky. I was quite pleased that at the end of that weekend we had a nice little note from the Trust to acknowledge that we had guys working on Saturday trying to make things happen for them, but when you don’t have to hand the proof, the assurance that you know you need from an engineering point of view, it really is folly to try and press ahead, and that’s where we were.”
“Has the Vulcan experience of a company managing a large, fairly complex jet changed the Authority’s attitude towards other types?”
“I would say it’s confirmed our attitude in a way. We always envisaged that for the truly complex ex-military aircraft you would need the right kind of team behind it, and one has to salute the Vulcan to the Sky Trust to be able to put the right team behind it. They have specialist companies behind them who have access to all of the original engineering data for the aircraft. That’s how it should be managed, and again if you look at it from a CAA point of view, we’re not keen to become involved in the nitty-gritty of everyday operation with the aircraft. We recognise that many of the specialist skills you need to restore and bring into service these aircraft are with people outside this building. Our system is set up to recognise those specialist companies, be they engineering design or specialising in maintaining and repairing and overhauling aircraft, so that we can rely on what they tell us. We check that they’re able to provide the right kind of assurances; we’ve got enough expertise here to know whether what they’re saying is complete and valid enough. We can ask the probing questions, because in the end we’re looking for them to satisfy us that the aircraft is safe to fly.”
“An example of that is Hawker Hunter Aviation who have a Buccaneer ready for flight – the next logical step for companies like that who are doing contract work for the MoD would be a Jaguar, which comes with an afterburning engine. Do you see a chance that something like a Jaguar could be operated on the civil register?”
“The Vulcan is your answer! If the mechanism will work for the Vulcan, I can’t conceive anything preventing us considering anything else.”
“There’s always the rumour that anything with an afterburner will be a ‘no’ – but that’s not the case, then?”
“Every time you add new complexity, you’ve got to have the backing behind you, and the reality of our situation is that there have been previous attempts to bring aircraft to us where we’ve found that backing wasn’t there, and that’s a big concern. If you look at what the CAA’s obligations are in law, my responsibility is not to allow an aircraft to take flight, unless I’m satisfied that it’s safe to do so.” (The CAA has a duty under the Air Navigation Order not to issue a permit to fly unless ‘it is satisfied that the aircraft is fit to fly having regard to the airworthiness of the aircraft and the conditions to be attached to the permit’.)
“That’s a pretty heavy burden, and so it’s not one that I’m willing to treat lightly, but the other side of that is I recognise that where there are organisations assembled in the way the team worked to support the Vulcan, that’s how we should proceed; we’re looking for the right organisations to be put in place, doing the right kind of work, giving us the right kind of assurances, and doing it in an ongoing fashion so that we can be confident that these are aircraft fit for purpose, that there’s an acceptable level of safety associated with them, and that they will be something that we can all be proud to see flying and not concerned about, week after week.”
The Fighter Collection's fleet, including its Grumman F8F-2P Bearcat G-RUMM, remains grounded pending historic maintenance verification. Key Archive “Can we now talk about the Fighter Collection (TFC) and the fact that since October 2008, the UK-registered aircraft have effectively been grounded? A lot of people are asking how this came about; why is the CAA taking so long to determine this matter? It is thought that TFC may be suffering financially as a result, as it relies on airshows for income. Some of these aircraft are 60 years old – so why is it that in October 2008 there’s suddenly a problem?”
“Again, it’s a really great example of what we look for when we’re trying to keep these sort of legendary aircraft flying, in that we are entirely focused on the specialist organisation that is supporting the aircraft day to day. We’re looking for the right assurances that when they’re looking after these aircraft, they are doing it to a standard that is safe. TFC and ourselves are working really, really hard to make sure these aircraft are back flying just as soon as possible, but the difficulties we’ve both had with the fleet are such that with the best will in the world we just couldn’t make it for this season. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that during the winter we’re able to make the progress I hope we’ll make and have a result for next year. Why the problems? All I can say is if we ground an aircraft, it’s because we’ve lost that assurance that everything is in order. What I treasure is the working relationship with TFC. That’s what’s going to get these aircraft back in the air.”
“So it wasn’t a change of legislation that brought this about?”
“No, these are real genuine concerns about safety issues with the aircraft, and of course one of the things with older aircraft, and particularly ones that have their origins outside this country, is they’ve been exposed to one heck of a history. The guys at TFC have a battle on their hands getting these aircraft to a known standard and keeping it that way, and I salute them for the very hard work they’re putting in to get them back in action. We’re still working with TFC and we want to keep that relationship good and strong. The reality is we don’t ground aircraft unless we’ve genuine concerns about their safety for the next flight.”
“Is the potential rectification process going to be replacement of parts?”
“It’s not for me to go into the individual details – we need to work out just how deep and how far we need to go, and yes, it could include replacement of parts, but that would be for the experts on the ground to work out.”
“It’s been a year now – do you have people dedicated to the problem?”
“No; it would be nice to say yes we do, but the simple reality is that the burden of work is not with CAA personnel, but with TFC’s own people. We don’t have the luxury of that level of staffing, probably thankfully from the point of view of those who pay our fees! However, the TFC guys are getting all the attention and all of the support from us that I think that they could hope for, and certainly I’ve not had anything back to indicate that we’ve got an issue there.”
“So you’re waiting for TFC to take certain steps?”
“We’re working with them, but our people are doing other things as well. The hope we all have is to see the collection back flying again next season.”
“One of the reasons I asked if it was a change of legislation is the relationship with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – what’s the exact relationship now between EASA and the CAA; are you going to be adopting common European standards, or is EASA going to move towards CAA standards, what’s the synergy there?”
“EASA was formed in September 2003, so we’re now six years into our relationship with it. When it comes to aircraft engineering, airworthiness matters, we’re now pretty much in tune, so what you see now is more or less what we expect to be the situation ongoing. However, EASA is not involved when it comes to Warbirds, ex-military aircraft and the like. It’s purely national legislation, and I guess the easiest way to think about it is that EASA’s focus is more on those kinds of aircraft that people would encounter in their everyday travelling lives, so it tends to leave things like homebuilt aircraft, microlights and the full remit of ex-military aircraft. It looks entirely to the national authorities to address those. To answer the question, we use the UK standards that we’ve developed over the years, and the nice thing about that is that we’ve been able to work with the UK aviation community to work out what are the best standards. It means that these are requirements that people can stay familiar with and keep on top of from one year to the next.”
Christophe Jacquard's FW 190A-8/N 990013/F-AZZJ at the 2009 Flying Legends event at Duxford. Key - Gary Parsons “A reason I ask is that at Flying Legends this year we saw an FW-190 fly in from France ,in its first year of operation, yet there’s one at Duxford that’s been there for three years and still hasn’t flown. People ask how come one can fly in from France, get a certificate, display, yet we’ve got one that is not yet allowed to – are there differing standards in France and the UK that enable that to happen?”
“The French have their own system, their own way of working, and the interesting thing for us is when the French aircraft came over for Flying Legends, we had a bit of work to do to exempt them from some of the national legislation here in the UK, because they weren’t capable of meeting our rules straight off. As for the aircraft that was on static display, we have an agreed way forward with the operator, but we’re still waiting for an application. I believe their intention is not to go forward with that, but that’s their decision, but it’s entirely possible to bring replica, factory-built machines into this country. There are a couple of Yak 3s on the register that are proof of that, so the same would apply to the FW190.”
“So there isn’t any one specific issue that you were saying “Can’t accept that, it’s got to be changed before we can issue a certificate?”
“We didn’t even get the opportunity to get to that stage – clearly the plans for the aircraft didn’t translate into wanting a flying unit here in the UK.”
“Do you think European standards for Warbirds will have to come together in the future?”
“I detect no appetite for Europe-wide standards at this stage, never say never I suppose!”
“So if the operators of the FW190 put a Permit to Fly application in front of you, you’d consider it favourably?”
“The reality is there’s an established process there, we do rely on specialist companies as I mentioned earlier on. The Yak 3 is the model, if you like, of how we would do it, so provided there were no issues specifically with the aircraft itself, the process is there, we’re just waiting for an application.”
“These specialist companies – the likes of Historic Aircraft Company, what do they need to do, is there some sort of formal qualification that they have to meet?”
Christophe Jacquard's FW 190A-8/N next to Tom Blair's FW 190A-9 on the Flying Legends flightline, which has yet to fly despite being in the UK for a number of years. Key - Gary Parsons“There is – we publish lots of documents, and anyone who wants to have a look on our website can quickly find some of the key ones, but in essence what they seek to do is identify organisations who are capable of either assessing an aircraft and its history, its modification status and provide us with a report that says this is what you’re getting if you buy it, or who day to day, month on month look after the aircraft, know how to repair it and do proper care and maintenance. In both of those situations, the companies apply to us and say they’d like to be considered – our focus is then have they got the skills, expertise, facilities, access to the right kind of engineering data, and how they maintain competence on an ongoing basis. Our system is set up so that they furnish us with reports, we validate those, and once we’re happy we issue the paperwork and the aircraft is legal.”
“Once you get to know a company, do you immediately have confidence in its products?”
“I think it’s always the case that if the company is UK-based and has a history with us, there is less need for us to ask a lot of intrusive questions, particularly if it’s an aircraft they’ve dealt with before. It’s not the same if it’s an aircraft coming from outside the UK – again we would look for some organisation with the right approvals from us to pick up the slack and take it forward. I think the key thing people need to understand is we don’t have the need or desire in our system to look at every single aircraft that comes through before it gets a permit; there are many thousands of aircraft and relatively few of us, but we’re very confident with the system, it seems to produce good results.”
“Is there any special accommodation for aircraft on the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) register, as a lot of Warbirds come into the UK with an ‘N’ prefix and are able to fly fairly continuously – do you accept the FAA standards almost as given, or do you still need to go through the appropriate regulatory checks?”
“Those aircraft, by and large, we would seek to have on the UK register and looked after in the system we’ve just talked about. Why? Because if an aircraft is on the ‘N’ register, then the body who’s responsible for its safety is the FAA, not us, and so all of the assurances that people might otherwise look to us to give, we simply can’t give. But of course we recognise that the FAA has systems and processes and people on the ground, and that translates into at least some allowance for the aircraft to come into the UK. If you speak to people who operate ‘N’ registered aircraft, particularly in the display circuit, I think they would all agree that they feel under pressure to move to the UK register and in my view that’s how it should be for aircraft that are based and operating here.”
“Is there a ‘period of grace’ after which you say, ‘Come on, you’re not really playing the game’?”
“We probably ought to be tighter on how much time we give them – let’s just say we prefer people to not linger on the ‘N’ register and be based here. It’s not just for safety reasons. The FAA has a lot on its hands on its own doorstep, it’s got relatively limited assets at its disposal in the UK, so it makes better sense that somebody local and on the ground is there to do what the public would expect us to be doing.”
“Could you actually say ‘You can’t fly this aircraft any more’; have you got the powers to do that?”
“Yes we do, particularly aircraft that are experimental – they need specific authorisation to come into UK airspace, because they haven’t got an internationally agreed certificate of airworthiness, so our power lies in denying them that permission.”
The Victor's unintentional flight at Bruntingthorpe in May 2009! Image by James Matthews “One final thing – the Victor at Bruntingthorpe and its unscheduled ‘flight’. We know it’s been sorted and statements have been issued, but I’m quite interested in how you get involved in something like that. I understand it was a breach of the Air Navigation Order that meant you had to be involved?
“My legal people tell me it was an illegal flight, strictly speaking.”
“An interesting point – what is actually a flight in technical terms? We know the aircraft left the ground, but sometimes aircraft leave the ground in a gust of wind.”
“You’d need to have a chat with the legal guys to get it exactly right! What was of more concern to us was it’s clearly a very high-energy machine, and nobody intended it to get airborne. We were content that the publicity and everything that went with it meant that people will have learnt that there is that potential, and perhaps they’re able to think how they can avoid doing it. For us that was far more important than anything else. We would rather that people spotted a learning opportunity and were entirely satisfied that the individuals involved had no bad intent. It’s not necessarily the right thing to punish people, the thing we really want to do is make sure that if there’s learning to be had, that message gets round, and that’s the wonderful thing about the way the media coverage happened. I’m pretty sure there’s nobody out there who doesn’t know about it! For us that’s job done.
“That’s a big part of what we do here at the CAA; we’re the only ones who get to see everything that’s going on, not just in UK industry, but worldwide. We do lots of publications, lots of talks and road shows and conferences to people within the aviation community to try and spread some of that learning – our hope is, a lesson learned in one place means we don’t have to learn it somewhere else.”
“Did you issue any advisory procedures and said ‘please stick with these in future’?”
“No, we felt the line needed to be drawn shy of doing that, and we thought that the message had been learned and the chances of somebody else encountering the same issue were much reduced.”
“So in terms of future regulation of that sort of event, you’re not expecting any changes?”
“I’m not, but the thing that would prove me wrong is if it becomes a regular occurrence. As in most things in life, there is a balance to be had – our view is folk who are involved in high-speed taxi demonstrations have seen someone who’s a good practitioner get the wrong side of the line, so will take precautions for themselves. There should be no need for the CAA to do anything.”
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