You wake up in the morning with a splitting headache that won’t go away, or a pain in the guts that no amount of Gaviscon can relieve. What do you do? Simple answer: get checked out by your general practitioner. In these Covid days, that’s usually first done remotely, because your medical centre is painfully risk-averse, but no matter – it’s part of the interesting times in which we live.
Now, shape-shift a little to your aircraft’s engine. It might be one of those where the CAA’s rules, which are hopefully based on the maker’s guidance, require that it must be run every few weeks or so.
Crudely put, aircraft engines are similar to human hearts. Failure to take care of either can result in terminal catastrophe. Many Civil Aviation Authority rules have been written about aircraft engines, mainly to guard bureaucratic butts, tick boxes and – crucially for the CAA – ensure that the buck always stops at the operator.
So what are we to make of the CAA’s submissive bowing to the Ministry of Health when it came to such engine maintenance during the latest lockdown?
During the first one, the CAA granted permission to the owners of aircraft equipped with engines that needed regular, short maintenance flights. But not this time because, according to the CAA, the Ministry of Health barred the exemption, despite the glaringly obvious: a solo maintenance flight is probably the ultimate expression of social distancing.
The CAA has said it did not think the flights were necessary because it had received information from Lycoming and TCM. But after making that somewhat limp-wristed statement, the CAA chose (for reasons still known only unto itself) to not share the contents with aircraft owners. It surely follows that, if these checks were not deemed critical during a lockdown, operators should expect a similarly relaxed CAA approach, post-lockdown.
Before we consider whether the Ministry of Health is competent to make decisions about aircraft engine maintenance and aviation safety, we need to look at the scale of the challenge. There are few aircraft engines in this country needing such regular checks, but they are all important. Most are parked in windy and lonely places unlikely to harbour Covid, and their owners are highly unlikely to want to visit nightclubs, pubs or cafes before or after they have done their checks.
During the first lockdown, Dr Ashley Bloomfield became New Zealand’s mild-mannered and self-effacing version of a cult hero. You could imagine viral sales of T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Ashley, sire my babies’. But this time around, we observed a much more powerful urge to control the population, claimed by those in power (but fearful of failure) as being justified by the greater threat of this Delta Covid variant. By way of his ministry’s guidance in Level 4, people in outposts such as Haast had to wear masks when in public places and anyone operating an affected aeroplane on, say, Stewart Island could not check their engine.
Most of us understand that New Zealand’s wing-and-a-prayer healthcare system would collapse within days, should there be a widespread outbreak of Covid 19; and compared to other so-called civilised countries, almost all thoughtful people here support carefully judged measures to help prevent it. (Of course, many have also wondered since March 2020 about the wisdom of putting thousands of potentially infected people in ill-suited hotels smack in the centre of New Zealand’s primary economic hub.)
And of course we would have expected a few bleats of envy-based protest from uninformed folk on the ground who heard an aircraft. They walk among us; there are individuals who deliberately live near airports just so they can complain about noise and alleged low flying. Such moanings could have been courteously noted and then discarded by the Ministry of Health, the CAA and Covid tsar Chris Hipkins.
The questions we in GA need to ask are:
Which of the bureaucratic tails at the CAA and Ministry of Transport failed to wag the other bureaucratic dogs at the Ministry of Health? Did anyone in the Ministry of Health really examine what risks were involved in letting a handful of pilots in non-infected places carry out their CAA-mandated duties by following erstwhile compulsory maintenance procedures?
The CAA appears to many participants in the system as a high-handed, thoughtless, arrogant and over-controlling entity with a worryingly unbroken record of discouraging the development of General Aviation in New Zealand; but its obeisance to the Ministry of Health might make it also look like a toothless puppy, an outfit perhaps not as powerful at managing aviation as we thought – and something we should henceforth be a bit less afraid of.
Would you trust a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Health to do your engine run-up and mag check?
Would you trust a LAME to check your blood pressure?
Can you trust the CAA to protect your flying?