I just paid $24.50 for the biggest load of nothing I've ever bought.
In November, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to try and get the details of an otherwise off-the-record meeting between the FAA and Sikorsky in July 2009 to discuss the problematic main gearbox (MGB) of Sikorsky's 19-passenger heavy-lift S-92A helicopter.
What I received was a 5-page rejection letter strewn with legalese so convoluted and tangled that my cat probably wouldn't even play with it if I balled it up and tossed it at her. My bill for their trouble was $24.50, which was actually quite a bargain since the FAA says it cost them $617 to send me five pages of nothing.
Here's the whole sordid tale in a nutshell:
Sikorsky in 2002 certified the S-92A heavy-lift helicopter with the FAA, and later with EASA. Incorporated into the certification was an assurance helicopter pilots have known and operated under for quite some time: If the main rotor blade transmission loses its lubrication for whatever reason, the pilot has at least 30 minutes of run-time before gears start seizing up and heavy things fall out of the sky.
The same is supposed to be true for the S-92A, and Sikorsky convinced the FAA and others as much through a failure modes analysis. The upshot of the analysis? Failures that would starve the main gearbox (MGB) of lubrication and that were not accounted for by other means would be "extremely remote", and hence did not have to be protected against.
"Extremely remote" in FAA certification parlance means one failure in 10 million flight hours, in other words, it won't happen in the life of one aircraft but could happen a couple of times in the life an entire fleet.
In-service experience with the S-92A had disproven the theory (and the analysis) with failure rates more than 200X higher than expected.
The situation worsened with the crash of a Cougar Helicopters oil and gas S-92A people-mover in March last year. Seventeen of the 18 on board drowned after the pilots attempted to return to the Newfoundland after losing all MGB oil while en route to several platforms.
The crew attempted to high-tail it back to land, which was within 30 minutes flying time (according to a lawsuit filed by the families and the lone survivor). The MGB however only lasted about 10 minutes before the tail rotor drive failed and the pilots tried to autorotate for a water landing.
With all that in mind, I found out that the FAA had held a meeting with Sikorsky in July to go over again that failure modes analysis, so I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get some information about the meeting.
Talk about the fox in the hen house...
My requests went to both the FAA's Southwest Region office and to its New England engine and propeller directorate, and both said the information belonged to Sikorsky, so Sikorsky would get to decide.
Hmmm? What would I do if I were Sikorsky? DENIED -- the information is proprietary (But of course!). The first of two reject letters is below. The second hasn't arrived yet, but an email tells me it's coming.
In the end, we may never find out what happened. Sikorsky settled the lawsuit out of court with the entire group.
What I do know from the $24.50 investment however, is that meeting did in fact occur, on 14 July 2009, and that there is a report titled System Safety Hazard Analysis (SSHA) Report of the S-92 Main Transmission Lubrication System and that there was also a PowerPoint presentation titled, S-92 Main Transmission Lubrication System Overview.
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate and will issue a final report in the near future.