FAA Rescinds and Refuses to Extend Exemption of Collings Foundation to Operate Aircraft as Part of Living History Flights

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Accident, Air Museums, Aircraft, Airshows, FAA, Legal

The FAA in an Order issued March 25, 2020, rescinded and refused to extend the exemption for the Collings Foundation to operate former military aircraft that served in World War II as part of Living History Flights.  The FAA has a policy of permitting Living History Flight Experiences.[1]  In this article, we will review and evaluate the context of the FAA’s decision in light of the October 2, 2019, crash of the Collings Foundation Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress which killed seven and injured six.

[1] Policy regarding Living History Flight Experience Exemptions for Passenger Carrying Operations Conducted for Compensation and Hire in Other Than Standard Category Aircraft, 80 FR 43012 (July 21, 2015) available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/07/21/2015-17966/policy-regarding-living-history-flight-experience-exemptions-for-passenger-carrying-operations.

The Collings Foundation operates a number of aircraft that were operated in WWII and they have been operated under Exemption No. 6540P (the “Exemption”).  The Exemption permitted the Collings Foundation to operate non-standard, experimental and limited category aircraft without complying with a number of regulations, to-wit:

  • FAR §91.9 that prohibits operations of an aircraft without complying with its airplane flight manual;
  • FAR §91.315 that prohibits operating a limited category aircraft from being operated to carry persons or property for compensation or hire,
  • FAR §91.319(a)(1) and (2) which forbids carrying persons for compensation or hire aboard an aircraft with an experimental certificate,
  • FAR §119.5(g) that prohibits operating as a direct air carrier or commercial operator without an appropriate certificate and operation specifications, and
  • FAR §119.21(a) that requires persons conducting in commercial operations engaged in interstate common carriage of persons much comply with the operation specifications requirements in Subpart C of Part 119.

In order to obtain its exemption, the Collings Foundation had to comply with a number of conditions and limitations.  Condition and Limitation No. 4 provided that the Collings Foundation Program and operations personnel must undergo annual training, including training in its safety and risk management program.  Further, the specific requirements of training were delineated in Condition and Limitation No. 7 requiring specific data on the date of each training or testing session, the amount of time, the location of training, the aircraft identification number, the name and certificate number of the instructor, the name and certificate number of the pilot, and the signature and printed name of the person who received the training.  The FAA investigation following the crash of the Collings Foundation B-17G on October 2, 2019, confirmed that the Crew Chief of the accident aircraft had received no documented training.

The Crew Chief of Subject Aircraft was required to assist the flight crew with checklists, handling emergencies, assisting the flight crew and maintenance personnel in the preparation of each flight and helping ground operations with ramp safety.  Moreover, crew chiefs are required to be familiar with the documents that must be onboard the aircraft and must be trained either by a pilot, as second-in-command, another crew chief, or the Director of Maintenance.  The FAA investigation confirmed that the Crew Chief on the Accident Aircraft only received on-the-job training. 

Condition and Limitation No. 5 provided that the Collings Foundation must provide a safety management system manual.  Unfortunately, the Crew Chief did not know that the Collings Foundation Safety and Management Program even existed.  The absence of the Crew Chief’s awareness of the Safety Management System demonstrated the Collings Foundation failed to maintain and apply on a continuous basis the required risk management program. 

Particularly disturbing was the fact that the pilot of the accident aircraft also served as the Director of Maintenance.  The consequence of this was that a single person was making safety of flight decisions without another person in the chain of safety having the authority to decline the ability of the pilot to operate the aircraft.  Consequently, there was no structure in place at the Collings Foundation to ensure adequate oversight of its decisions to conduct passenger carrying operations with respect to the October 2, 2019, flight.  These facts demonstrated non-compliance with Condition and Limitation No. 5. 

Condition and Limitation No. 6 required the Collings Foundation to maintain the aircraft in accordance with its general maintenance manual, the type specification sheet, and FAA-approved maintenance inspection program that meets the requirements of FAR §91.409(e)(f)(4), and (g), and operate the aircraft in compliance with military technical manuals.  Despite these provisions, the magnetos in the No. 4 engine had suffered a number of failures.  The P-leads in one of the magnetos on the No. 4 engine had been safety wired causing grounding to the engine case rendering the magneto lead inoperative.  The right magneto on the No. 4 engine was unserviceable.  The cam follower was worn beyond limits and the point gap was less than half of the measurement required by service documents.  When tested, the magneto produced weak or no spark to four of the nine cylinders.  The spark plugs were inspected and required cleaning and all electrode gaps were out of tolerance with the result that an inspection of the engine revealed the engine had suffered detonation and associated damage.  An inspection of the spark plugs from the No. 3 engine showed that they all were out of tolerance, fouled and revealed various signs of detonation.  The physical evidence raised questions as to whether the engines were adequately maintained in accordance with the applicable maintenance requirements.

Based upon these findings, the FAA rescinded the exemption to the Collings Foundation to operate living history flights, the Order being issued on March 25, 2020 by Robert C. Carty, Deputy Executive Director, Flight Standards Service.  In addition to rescinding the exemption previously held by the Collings Foundation, the FAA also refused to extend the exemption with respect to other aircraft operated by the Collings Foundation.  These actions were taken by the FAA in the public interest.

Finibus Bonorum et Malorum

Conclusion

The findings made by the FAA following the crash of the Collings Foundation B-17 are grievous.  It is difficult to imagine that a complex piece of machinery like a four-engine bomber could have been operated in such a reckless manner.  These findings should not reflect on the other responsible operators of Second World War aircraft who do so in compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations in an effort to operate these vintage aircraft in a safe and responsible manner.  While it may be unfair, those of us who operate these vintage aircraft realize that the actions of the Collings Foundation will result in the FAA looking at the operation of vintage aircraft with more skepticism.  It is exciting for us as pilots to operate these vintage aircraft, and persons on the ground enjoy seeing them flown.  However, the findings of the FAA in the wake of the crash of the Collings Foundation B-17 make the climate in which we operate these vintage aircraft all the more challenging. 

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