The US Department of Defense (DoD) is doing, on the surface, what any responsible government department anywhere would do. It has thousands of helicopters (and parts for them) which have been paid for once by the taxpayer and are now surplus to requirements. Rather than scrapping or mothballing them, the DoD is handing them on to other government agencies, thereby saving those agencies (and therefore the taxpayer) from having to buy yet more new machines.

It is not quite like that in practice, of course - at least, not in the eyes of three powerful lobbies: the helicopter manufacturers, the civilian-helicopter operators and (to a lesser extent) the US Federal Aviation Administration.

The manufacturers' core objection is easy to see: every hand-me-down helicopter sale represents a new-helicopter sale lost. The operators , however, do not see these military disposals as saving anybody anything. In their eyes, public-service institutions such as police forces should not be acquiring their own fleets anyway, but acquiring them from existing operators of services which they need.

The FAA, unlike the other two objectors to this growing military practice, is a disinterested party - but not an uninterested one. Its interest stems from safety concerns. The trouble is that the FAA's concern has become another focus for opposition.

That is not to say that the concerns of manufacturers and civil operators over the safety of ex-military machines, and their surplus spares, are not sincere or legitimate. The manufacturers are vulnerable to product-liability claims and see themselves as being even more vulnerable when there are machines or parts in service for which there is no known operating history. The civil operators see new operators, with little experience, outside the reach of the strict regulations under which they must work, doing things which they would not be allowed to do.

In the middle of this battle are two groups which regard themselves as victims: they are the civilian companies which convert ex-military machines for non-military use, or wish to use ex-military parts for repair services, and the existing and potential civilian and public-service operators. All consider themselves to be at the mercy of everybody else.

In all this, there are some arguments advanced which come perilously close to hokum. The DoD is not renowned for accepting sub-standard merchandise, nor for wilful neglect of machinery, yet the manufacturers of some of those parts are curiously reluctant to consider as legitimate parts made by them for the military, to exactly the same standards and specifications as for identical civil-market parts. On the other hand, there are operators which seem to be wanting manufacturers to take responsibility (and liability) for anything which even vaguely resembles what those manufacturers once made, regardless of what modifications have been made by whom in the meantime.

This whole dispute has already become too emotional, and has spawned at least one extraordinary lawsuit in which a manufacturer could, in effect, be asked to prove that parts which it made for the DoD are not of acceptable quality. Such disputes could destroy the essential mutual trust and respect between manufacturers, operators and regulators which distinguish the aviation sector from many other branches of commerce.

It is clear that attempts to sort the problem out (such as the imminent arrival of legislation requiring civilian operators of ex-military machines to have them certificated) are arousing more passion and hostility than agreement from some operators. There are calls from some quarters for the DoD to solve the problems (at least in the short term) by halting all disposals of helicopters and parts until a better system can be devised. That might stop the problem (if there is one) from getting any worse, but it will not make anything better.

The DoD and FAA need to agree as a matter of urgency just where their standards coincide, and then to agree jointly with manufacturers, repairers and operators on how that agreement should be applied and interpreted in dealing with real helicopters in the real world.

Source: Flight International