Inspections: Are they reasonable?
Whatís behind the recent grounding of hundreds of our nationís airliners? Does it make any safety difference if an electrical wiring bundle is clamped to the airframe every four inches or five inches or six inches? Probably not, as long as the wiring bundle cannot drop down or cannot, by motion of the aircraft, interfere with some vital moving part. But if the inspection manual says to clamp the wiring bundle every four inches, then any deviation from specifications may result in pulling the aircraft out-of-service.
Or, is this an effort by U.S. aircraft mechanics and inspectors to stop the airlines from having portions of their maintenance done overseas? Maybe the overseas shops measure the distance between clamps using centimeters and U.S.-based inspectors measure in inches? Or, is this come kind of rope-a-dope scheme by the airlines and the FAA to get Congress to shift much of the cost of airline operations off onto other segments of the aviation industry? Or, is this a scheme by the older, high-cost legacy airlines to kill off the newer, lower-cost carriers? Or, maybe, conscientious inspectors are merely doing what their inspection manuals say to do.
Some standards, however, are affordable and some standards are not. In the mid-1970s, maintenance inspectors from U.S. Army, Europe (USAREUR) found that a number of the rubber track-pads on armored vehicles of the 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR) stationed in Fulda, West Germany, were worn down below the standard specified in the inspection manual.
Actually, whether the vehicles had thick-enough track-pads or not did not interfere with their war-fighting ability. The rubber pads were mostly there to prevent our armored vehicles from tearing up West Germanyís paved roads. If the Soviets came pouring through the Fulda Gap, the war would not be fought on paved roads. But paved roads were sometimes used by U.S. forces to move between maneuver areas.
Never mind that the squadron commander, a personal friend, had long before identified all the below-standard track-pads in his squadron and had placed replacements on requisition. The requested track-pads had yet to arrive and Jimís squadron was about to fail its annual maintenance inspection, with bad consequence for Jim, his troops, and the regimental commander.
The regimental commander hit upon an idea. All the other squadron commanders, yours truly included, got one of those infamous 3:00 a.m. phone calls. The regimental commander ordered us to wake all the 11th troopers deployed across the Fulda Gap to perform, before dawn, a 100-percent inspection of all the rubber track-pads in the entire regiment.
An armored cavalry regiment has over 140 tracked vehicles, so the number of rubber track-pads to be inspected during the wee hours was enormous. Sure enough, all squadrons reported a large number of rubber track-pad that were probably, maybe, kinda, sorta too thin to please the USAREUR inspectors.
By dawn, the regimental commander and his supply officer had calculated the astronomical cost of replacing all of the regimentís worn rubber track-pads and had a requisition for hundreds of rubber track-pads winging its way via helicopter to USAREUR headquarters in Heidelberg. Until the requested rubber track-pads were installed, the regiment covering the crucial Fulda Gap would have to be declared unfit for combat Ė a downgrade in readiness status that Soviet intelligence would have detected in a Moscow minute.
You guessed it. USAREUR decided it could not afford the dollars necessary to maintain rubber track-pads thick enough to meet its own inspection standards. Jimís squadron the passed the inspection!
Too often, unreasonable standards are made up by REMFs (technical military acronym for which space does not permit explanation) who have never heard or ever will hear a shot fired in anger, even in Bosnia or anywhere else.
On the other hand, every time an aircraft takes to the air, it faces a real-world test. So, periodically, all aircraft need to be inspected. Hopefully, they are inspected to reasonable safety standards.
William Hamilton, a featured commentator for USA Today, has written his nationally syndicated column for over 26 years. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and a former research fellow at the U.S. Military History Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers. He is also the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy Ė two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2008. William Hamilton.