Old cargo plane ditches in Miami lake - How old is too old re aircraft safety?

Per this story it looks like this plane is 50-60 years old and was still being used commerically. Is there an upper age limit at which the FAA finally says “enough” re the age of airplanes and safe flying?

Cargo plane ditches in Miami suburb lake
Two pilots rescued by boat from decades-old aircraft

There are lots of DeHavilland Beavers (produced between 47-67) still flying around here up in bush country. I’m given to understand that the only original parts on a lot of them are the little plates where the serial numbers are stamped, and perhaps a few bits of aluminum on the airframe.

There is no general limit from the FAA for how long an airplane may remain in service.

For some aircraft, there are limits specified in the Type Certificate Data Sheet. The TCDS contains information about the aircraft such as gross weight, approved engines, propellers, fuels, etc. It also contains life limits for the airframe, if any exist. Most airplanes do not have a set limit.

As for safety, you have to keep in mind that most airplanes are subject to routine inspections to stay in service. Your typical flight school Cessna 172 has to have an inspection every 100 hours (flight time) by an airframe and powerplant mechanic, and then the same inspection annually by a person with an inspection authorization. Larger operators such as airlines and charter services often maintain their airplanes under an inspection program that they write and have approved by the FAA.

In most cases, an airplane can be kept in service forever. All it takes is maintenance. Lots and lots of maintenance.

On Preview: We still operate a 1953 Beaver here in TN. Not exactly bush country, though.

Aircraft have life-limited components. When you see an aircraft for sale, you’ll see acronyms such as SMOH (Since Major Overhaul). This is important because of TBO (Time Between Overhaul). For example, a typical Lycoming engine has a 2,000 hour TBO. That is, it is expected to last 2,000 flight hours (I think that’s tachometer hours instead of Hobbes hours, but I could be wrong about that). In commercial operation (including rental), that means that the engine must be overhauled at 2,000 hours. Aircraft are also subject to annual inspections. Aircraft in Commercial operations (again, including rental) need to undergo 100-hour inspections. An Annual counts as a 100-hour inspection.

A helicopter has TBO on other components. The rotor blades on a Robinson R-22 must be replaced at 2,000 hours. So you’ll overhaul or replace the engine at 2,000 hours, replace the main- and tail-rotor blades, overhaul the transmission, etc. (A Robinson factory overhaul includes a ‘zero-time’ engine, replacement of components, re-painting and re-upholstering. Costs about $75,000.) A Schweizer 300 has a 2,000-hour TBO on its Lycoming engine, but a 4,000-hour TBO on its rotor blades (around $15,000 each). I think the Schweizer’s tail boom has about a 13,000-hour TBO. I’ve heard that some fixed-wing aircraft have TBOs on their wings; but I’m not sure which, if any, do.

There are also ADs (Airworthiness Directives) that must be complied with in order for an aircraft to remain airworthy. ADs can cover any part of the aircraft, from the engine to the sheet metal. One example is the Beechcraft V35 Bonanza. There is an AD requiring stiffeners on the fuselage under the V-tail because of some inflight failures. Other ADs may cover such things as required corrosion inspections. ADs must be complied with, and they must be attested to by the A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) mechanic.

As long as the components are within TBO, the ADs have all been complied with, and the aircraft passes its airworthiness inspections, it’s good to go.

Compare that with automobiles. There are no longer ‘safety inspections’ AFAIK. (In the UK, they have MoT inspections that a car must pass to remain in the road.) People tend to drive a car until it gets too old, requires more repairs than they want to make, etc. Then they get sold to someone else, who drives it a while and sells it to someone else, and so on until it just wears out and is hauled off to a junkyard. Since people tend not to maintain their cars very well, age is a factor.

General Aviation aircraft are pretty old. The average age of the GA fleet is something like 30 years. In the late-1970s there were as many as 15,000 new aircraft built every year. This ensured a steady supply of new aircraft for people to buy, and relatively inexpensive aircraft for people who couldn’t afford a new one. In the 1980s there were a number of crushing lawsuits. Juries were chosen who knew nothing about aviation, and to them ‘pilot error’ was not an option. It had to be the Big Corrupt Aviation Companies that cause the death of poor Pilot Joe who flew his Cessna into a class 5 T-storm (and without even an IFR rating). In one famous case, Cessna was hit with a $40 million judgement when a pair of pilots – a husband and wife – flew into a T-storm. Even though the NTSB determined the engine was working normally, Lycoming was hit with a large judgement as well. Juried just wouldn’t listen to facts, and were persuaded that the Aviation Companies must be culpable. (Okay, that was a bit of a rant. Sorry.) Another factor was that the aviation companies were liable for every aircraft they’d ever built! :eek: If Piper built an airplane 50 years ago, before some sort of technique or material even existed, they could still be held liable for a crash. Congress reformed that bit, and now they are only responsible for aircraft built within the last (IIRC) 18 years. Still, can you imagine Ford being held liable in a fatal crash when the car was built before airbags?

The upshot was that GA aircraft production came to a screeching halt. Instead of 15,000 new units, 1,200 was considered a good year. Piper went through several bouts of bankruptcy, and Cessna stopped building single-engine piston aircraft (the kind everybody flies) for a decade. Used aircraft became more and more expensive. Aircraft that might have previously gone to a boneyard were now kept in service. Hence, an older fleet.

Still, there’s nothing really wrong with older aircraft. Yes, there are articles such as ‘How Old Is Too Old’ in AOPA and Flying; but as long as the aircraft are properly maintained, there should be no problem flying them.

Again, maintaining an aircraft is expensive. It’s cheaper to have an existing engine overhauled than it is to buy a new engine or to put in a ‘zero-time’ (factory rebuilt) engine. Engines are subjected to constant operation and temperature extremes. (Consider also that if an airplane operates at 140 mph, then at 2,000 it will have 280,000 miles on it.) A lower-priced overhaul might keep a serviceable cylinder, even though there may be an undetected flaw in it. (If there is a known problem, it must be replaced.) So an older aircraft that has had the least-expensive maintenance allowed by law is more likely to develop a problem inflight. The same aircraft – even if it’s 50, 60 or 70 years old – that has been the benficiary of higher-quality maintenance would be less likely to have a problem.

So in short: It’s not really the age of the aircraft, but how it’s been maintained.

(Incidentally, when was the last B-52 built?)

From here. Of course, they’ve been extensively rebuilt, modified, and upgraded over the years…

Which proves the point. :wink:

Not really on-topic, but au contraire - in many states, cars must be inspected every year, and they check tires, brakes, suspension, headlight aiming, all exterior lights, mirrors, and so on.

When I was based at a Wisconsin airfield we had a 1926 Taylorcraft airplane flying out of the field on a regular basis - at the time it was a 70 year old airplane. The maintenance on it, however, had been impeccable. And, again, not many original parts left.

There are thousands of airplanes from the 40’s still flying - though they are becoming less common and getting more expensive to maintain. You can still find Stearmans and Wacos, and an airfield only about 40 minutes away from where I live will rent you the Stearman for stunt flying (after suitable check out, approval, and proof of insurance) - that’s a 60 year old airplane being put through various manuvers like spins, dives, rolls, and so forth. Last two Stearmans we had crash in our area were involved in a mid-air collision - a circumstance no airplane is designed to withstand (except, perhaps, something exotic from the military).

Most of the airplanes I fly are 30-40 years old. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that as a general rule - but then, I get to inspect them personally before I go up and I have some knowledge of what is a go/no-go item. I have rejected airplanes because of defects found on pre-flights, but I’d say that’s just as likely to happen to a 10 year old airplane as a 30 year old.

I’ve also flown planes that were rebuilt after a crash. If it’s done right, you might actually be safer than before because such a rebuild can involve stripping the airframe down to the skeleton, having a look at parts that never otherwise see the light of day, and replacing a whole lot of stuff - with the result that a lot of the airplane winds up being new or nearly-new parts.

It all comes down to the fact that airplanes are not cars and are not treated as cars - in airplanes, you frequently replace things BEFORE they break and oil changes are done religiously (at my FBO, every 50 hours). Lots of different people look over rental airplanes over the course of the day, so something missed by one will most likely be caught by another before it gets serious.

I read somewhere that B52’s are scheduled (by the Air Force) to remain flying until something like 2020. How’s that for a point? :wink:

Great post, but I have to nitpick some of the TBO stuff. TBO is a tricky subject.

For a typical owner/operator (including commercial) not operating under Part 135 or Part 121, TBO is a recommendation, nothing more. A flight school or FBO providing rentals may operate their engines well past TBO. Now, TBOs can be made mandatory by AD or the TCDS (like the Robbies) or some act of the FAA, but that is not the norm. For the most part, they may run their stuff until it wears plumb out. Our flight school (30+ aircraft) would take a huge financial hit if they were forced to comply with recommended engine TBOs.

Part 121 and 135 operators may be required to comply with the recommended TBO, depending on their operating specifications. In practice they often get extensions or are otherwise exempted.

Avweb featured a good article here on TBO, it’s worth a read.

My main safety concern here is not with the age of the plane. It’s with the fact that if you can’t spell “elect”, you shouldn’t be able to get your pilot’s licence.

And, as was pointed out in this Fast Company article, they haven’t seen nearly as many flight hours as you might expect:

According to a clue on last night’s episode of Jeopardy!, several of the 1936 (earliest) examples of the Douglas DC-3 are still in use around the world. I’m not sure if the plane depicted at the top of the linked page is one of the '36 models, but it appears to be USA-based.

Until 1986, the 1928 Ford Tri-Motor was the aircraft of choice for the Ohio flight over the stretch of Lake Erie between “mainland” Port Clinton and South Bass Island’s Put-in-Bay. The flight took about four minutes, and was the shortest regularly scheduled air route in the world. This page says that after the plane depicted was sold, the new owner gave rides to the public for a five-year period. Two of the Put-in-Bay planes are now being restored in hopes that they will someday fly again.