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JetStar owners fear life-limit changes could ground fleet

Certificate holder Lockheed Martin insists move is driven by service history problems

Owners and operators of the four-engined Lockheed JetStar business jet are accusing aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, the certificate holder, of attempting to ground the fleet by instituting near-term life limits on key parts, a suggestion the company vehemently denies.

Designed by famed Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Kelly Johnson, the JetStar is considered to be the world's first business jet. The fleet overall has accumulated more than 2 million hours since its first flight 50 years ago.

Lockheed built 204 of the aircraft through the late 1970s, including the more fuel-efficient, less noisy JetStar II version with TFE731 turbo­fan engines in later years. About 35 aircraft remain active in the US fleet. "They're adored and loved by the people that own them," says Larry Simpkins, a JetStar pilot and mechanic based in the USA.

Simpkins is spearheading the effort to challenge Lockheed's plans to impose life limits on five parts that had previously required regular inspections - the nose landing gear steering cylinder, empennage pivot fitting, flap fittings, wing-attach bolts and engine-pylon bolts. Lockheed has asked the US Federal Aviation Administration to codify its operator maintenance reports and service bulletins covering the problems into the aircraft's maintenance manuals, a process that does not require public input.

"There's been no attempt to ground the fleet, that's not our intention," says Lockheed. "The reason we're implementing these life-limit changes is that in our experience, the service history has proven that these parts have had problems." The company says some aircraft have been lost in incidents related to the parts, but that none had resulted in fatalities.

If approved by the FAA, changes to the manual in some cases would require immediate action, with labour costs around $200,000 or more. Parts kits are not yet available for the work and the manufacturer, Hi Tech Aero Spares, will ask for a 50% deposit just to get started on making the kits, says Simpkins, who discounts Lockheed's assessment that the service history is driving the changes.

In response, Lockheed says the company "in the near future" will release sections of a propriety report that it submitted to the FAA to justify the need for setting life limits for the parts.

© Larry Simpkins   

The JetStar is considered to be the world's first business jet and around 35 remain active in the USA