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On Sept. 29, Advanced Composite Structures Florida (ACSF) received a long-fought-for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) exemption allowing the company to represent foreign military surplus composite main rotor blades as “suitable for installation” on restricted category UH-1 helicopters.
The exemption allows ACSF to sell the rotor blades to restricted category operators and requires the company to issue an FAA form 8130-3 for each; it is the first time the agency has granted an exemption on foreign military surplus articles.
The rotor blades were obtained by Stone Aviation International (SAI) in 2014. They had been produced to an FAA-approved design and possessed the same part numbers as blades produced in the United States by the design and production approval holders. Though they were manufactured according to the specifications of those on American military helicopters, the specific blades had been manufactured for and declared surplus by the German armed forces.
As a result, they failed to meet the criteria in 14 CFR § 21.9(c) requiring military articles be declared surplus by the U.S. Armed Forces in order to be sold as suitable for installation on type-certificated aircraft.
“There initially was mass confusion about these blades and where they fell in the regulations,” said David Stone, ACSF director of business development and support, “but soon a consensus came from all FAA personnel I spoke with that they could not be sold for use or used on restricted category helicopters.”
Facing this initial refusal, SAI contacted Sarah MacLeod, managing member of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein, P.L.C. (OFM&K) in Alexandria, Virginia. Based on MacLeod’s counsel and supported by data collected from various designees, mechanics, rotor blade repair specialists, consultants and agency personnel, the company developed an initial “pathway for approval.” Unfortunately, the proposal faced additional misunderstanding within the FAA’s rotorcraft directorate before being delegated to the company’s principal maintenance inspector (PMI).
“We did exactly what the agency instructed and the audit and examination went without a hitch,” Stone said, remembering that the flight standards district office indicated the blades would subsequently be entered into the FAA’s WebOpps system. Unfortunately, ACSF said, the agency never followed through – ACSF was forced to go back to the compliance drawing board.
The company returned to MacLeod, who helped construct a new plan: OFM&K would spearhead a request for exemption under ACSF’s FAA repair station certificate. The request would be based on verifiable data, the company’s testing of the blades against the design specification and the aviation safety rules’ fundamental requirements of airworthiness.
“Based on the completely new approach, Sarah assured us that we ‘might have a chance’ at getting this exemption,” Stone said, noting that OFM&K’s optimism was unique among the other aviation lawyers, compliance firms and even FAA officials consulted by the company. Having been told repeatedly that the blades would never see the light of day, ACSF kept faith in MacLeod’s team, “so we went for it.”
The request for exemption was submitted in January 2017, and supplemented in June, before its acceptance was finally published in September – four years and multiple rejections after the blades were initially purchased. Based upon the proprietary process submitted, the FAA accepted ACSF’s assertion that it can establish each blade meets agency-approved design, operating and maintenance requirements.
“ACSF has requisite design and production data and historical records to enable it – and the FAA – to make competent airworthiness determinations,” the grant of exemption stated. “The FAA agrees with ACSF that this exemption would be in the public interest because many restricted category type-certificated helicopters … fly missions under contract for federal, state and local governments.”
Good data supported the exemption, but OFM&K made it happen.
“[When ACSF first went looking for compliance help,] other lawyers said ‘no.’ Everyone said ‘no.’
There were even some voices at the FAA whose ‘no’ was accompanied by an ‘over my dead body.’ ” MacLeod said.
“[OFM&K] can say ‘yes’ – or at least ‘why not’ – more often than others because our team understands the reality of the aviation safety rules. We don’t stop after one reading of a regulation and we sure as hell won’t stop because of an unsupported ‘no’ from a regulator.”
ACSF is now working to fulfill the obligations of the exemption, which will allow the long-awaited delivery of those composite main rotor blades to market.