Monday, December 13, 2004

Grounded Mentors

One of the airplanes I’ve loved throughout my flying career is the T-34. The tandem cockpit, two-seater, single-engine aircraft was used by both the United States Air Force and the US Navy as early as the 1950’s as a primary flight trainer. At the end of their service, they were passed on to Navy flying clubs, where I flew them, and to private hands. It was a great little warbird not much bigger than any other single engine airplane and hell of a lot of fun. I’d love to own one myself. The usual $150,000 price tag has put it out of my reach for now.

Just north of Houston a few weeks ago, the second local T-34 crash in two years occurred. Much like the first, witnesses saw a wing depart the aircraft in flight. This is a known defect of these airplanes. The FAA had instituted an inspection program to try to counter the risk, and the aircraft involved in the crash had complied with those requirements. Both airplanes were owned by Texas Air Aces. The first crash killed the company’s founder.

The FAA has grounded the airplanes. (Click here for a copy of the Airworthiness Directive.--Note: You'll need Adobe Acrobat to view it.) As painful as I know that is for the aircrafts’ current owners, I feel it’s an appropriate move. It’s not clear at this point what, if anything, can be done to keep the airplanes flying safely. Better inspection requirements might do the trick, though that may be doubtful. There’s a mechanism at work that’s obviously not fully understood. A mandatory replacement of the wing spars in the airplane might also prove to be just a band aid since nothing would be done to address stress and fatigue on the accompanying structure. I’m not going to pretend I know what the answer is; but if I were a T-34 owner today, I’d be bracing myself for a permanent grounding. It may be time to simply retire the airplanes or simply retire the A or B models individually if one has a more provocative failure history than the other.
I hope a solution can be found that can allow the airplanes to fly safely. Most general aviation aircraft are flown safely past their original design lifetimes because of strict maintenance programs and owners willing to put the necessary money in their airplanes to refurbish them. But those of us in the aviation community may have to accept that the service lives of these airplanes have been so different that time has finally caught up with them, and it’s time to let them soar into that big graveyard in the sky.