How Much Regulation Is Too Little?
Two men comfort a third (center), who just indentified the body of his son, Wallace Manko. His son had been a passenger on the fishing vessel ‘Pelican,’ which capsized the day before. Montauk, New York, September 2, 1951.
Edited to add: These two posts by former USCG Marine Safety Inspector Mario Vittone at gCaptain on days 5 and 6 of the Bounty hearing are must-reads if you’re interested in what happened to the Bounty and why.
Nobody has asked for every vessel to be put on the pillars every year and gone over by some Officious Bureaucratic Martinet, leaning the captain up against the foremast and sticking his index finger into the captain’s fundament… I have only asked how we might keep structurally unsound ships from putting to sea… an unsound ship would have its rudder gear disabled until it survived the equivalent of a D Level inspection. That’s the regulation I propose.
A D Level Inspect is the most comprehensive inspection an airliner undergoes. Here is the Wikipedia entry for what a D Level entails:
This is by far the most comprehensive and demanding check for an airplane. It is also known as a Heavy Maintenance Visit (HMV). This check occurs approximately every 5 years. It is a check that, more or less, takes the entire airplane apart for inspection and overhaul. Also, if required, the paint may need to be completely removed for further inspection on the fuselage metal skin. Such a check will usually demand around 40,000 man-hours and it can generally take up to 2 months to complete, depending on the aircraft and the number of technicians involved. It also requires the most space of all maintenance checks, and as such must be performed at a suitable maintenance base. Given the requirements of this check and the tremendous effort involved in it, it is also the most expensive maintenance check of all, with total costs for a single visit being well within the million-dollar range.
Because of the nature and the cost of such a check, most airlines—especially those with a large fleet—have to plan D Checks for their aircraft years in advance. Oftentimes, older aircraft being phased out of a particular airline’s fleet are either stored or scrapped upon reaching their next D Check, due to the high costs involved in it in comparison to the aircraft’s value. On average, a commercial aircraft undergoes 2–3 D Checks before it is retired. Many Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) shops state that it is virtually impossible to perform a D Check profitably at a shop located within the United States. As such, only few of these shops offer D checks.
As outlined in the previous post there is no government inspection regime for private vessels, or for commercial passenger vessels carrying fewer six or fewer passengers. (In fact, commercial passenger vessels carrying six or fewer passengers are given regulatory designation Uninspected Passenger Vessels.)
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
New York and many other states mandate safety inspections for private motor vehicles, with state-registered shops, and special stickers and such like. I have no particular qualms with this, but I don’t find it especially helpful in trying to imagine what an inspection regime that would certify the seaworthiness of private boats might look like.
For that, like Blaise, I find it more helpful to look at how aircraft are regulated.
But instead of looking at the 5 year, top to bottom, inside and out, strip the paint, take the whole thing apart if need be that Blaise suggests for Bounty, I’d like to look at the far other end of aircraft regulation; the regulation of the Ultralight class, and if there might be anything to be gleaned from how these regulations are written.
All aircraft, commercial and private, are required to carry a Certificate of Airworthiness. Commercially built aircraft receive this certificate for their various models though a combination of empirical testing and building to known standards. Home-built aircraft receive their certificate by showing that the craft has been constructed to known standards. A craft’s COA will become invalid if the craft is not properly maintained, which has varying degrees of complexity and regulation, but at a bare minimum, even a home-built aircraft must have an annual inspection by a FAA certified mechanic.
First off, ultralights aren’t even aircraft. If ultralights were aircraft, they would need to be professionally maintained, but they don’t have to be professionally maintained, so they aren’t aircraft. Statutorily ultralights classes as “vehicles”. And while there are no regulations for airworthiness or maintenance of an ultralight, there are regulations for what an ultralight isn’t.
An ultralight isn’t a two-seater. An ultralight doesn’t weigh more than 254lbs. An ultralight can’t go faster than 55 knots. An ultralight doesn’t have a stall speed faster than 24 knots. An ultralight doesn’t carry more than 5 gallons of fuel.
If your “vehicle” doesn’t go above any of these thresholds then the FAA doesn’t care whether or not it’s airworthy and doesn’t care if or how it’s maintained.
And because of that, perhaps it’s not surprising that the FAA does care where and how you fly your ultralight vehicle.
Ultralight vehicle cannot be flown except between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Ultralight vehicles cannot be flown over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons.
In other words, if your “vehicle” is small enough, slow enough and isn’t flown anywhere where it’s likely to hit anyone when it falls out of the sky, they go ahead, kill yourself or don’t. The FAA doesn’t care.
And this would seem to be where Blaise and I diverge.
I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Brother Blaise is advocating that there should be inspection of every private vessel; only those large enough to be called ships. In fact, the STCW convention (to which the US is a signatory) requires signatory nations to regulate vessels over 300 gross tons. Bounty rubbed up against these regulations when changes were made to her that raised her gross tonnage, and the these changes were reverse to relieve her of the regulatory obligation. (Gross tonnage is a complex and arcane measurement of a vessel’s carrying capacity. It is not displacement. None of the changes made to Bounty change her displacement or stability characteristics.)
Where commercial passenger vessels are concerned, vessel tonnage used to be used for regulation, but as found to be a counter productive way to enforce regulations. An excerpt from the original US Coast Guard Marine Safety Board report on the the capsize of the Pelican, which happened right here in Montauk:
“45. The board is of the opinion that interest developed in this case because of the large number of lives lost and the clear-cut issue as to the decisive cause of the disaster — the overloading of the PELICAN with resultant loss of 45 lives (this under the sole responsibility of the operator who had complied with all effective laws but nevertheless as a result of poor judgment or ignorance was not prevented from taking risks which resulted in loss of life) — should be used to bring to the attention of the appropriate committees of Congress the loop-holes and unsatisfactory provisions of the present laws which permit these conditions to exist.
“46. The board is of the opinion that the most important single provision of the law which permitted the overloading of the PELICAN is the exemption of vessels under 15 tons from the provisions of the inspection laws which would have limited the passenger carrying capacity of the PELICAN on the basis of deck space available, with due consideration for the vessel’s stability further, the inspection law would have required the stowage of life preservers to be marked and to come under specific requirements as to the accessibility of life preservers, rather than the more general and less effective provisions of the motor boat laws under whose provisions the PELICAN operated.
“47. The board is of the opinion that legislation intended to prevent the recurrence of a disaster like the PELICAN should be carefully considered so that it does not become an onerous burden to the thousands of owners of smaller craft nor on the administrative agencies charged with administering the law. A law which is too broad in its scape and whose provisions are not carefully considered may do little to improve conditions because of public resistance to controls not demonstrably necessary for safety, aggravated be the administrative overloads which may be placed on presently fully employed staffs.
“48. The board is of the opinion that the extension of the present inspections powers of the Coast Guard, intended to correct this situation, should be limited to vessels carrying passengers for hire.
“49. The board is of the opinion that vessels carrying a limited number of passengers should be exempt from the new provisions of the law.
“50. The board is of the opinion that the cut-off point between exempt and non-exempt vessels not be on the basis of tonnage but should be on the basis of the number of passengers carried. The exemption on the basis of tonnage is completely unrealistic in that it places no restriction on the number of passengers that may be carried on a smaller and presumably less capable vessel while it does restrict the number carried on the larger and presumably more capable vessel.
There’s no reason that on top of the regulation of commercial vessels we already have that we couldn’t have regulation of all private vessels over a certain size, or over a certain number of passengers/crew. Such regulation might prevent the very small number of instances when unseaworthy, poorly manned, private operated ships put to sea and then come to misfortune. (Bounty’s hearing is not yet finished, let alone conclusions drawn, but my suspicions is the largest measure of the fault will be laid at Captain Walbridge’s decision making, followed by poorly maintained machinery, followed by poorly manned machinery and the deficiencies in the hull last. We will see.)
As to whether Bounty is more like an ultralight (unregulated, and putting no-one at risk but its pilot) or more like a ferry boat (heavily regulated, and carrying people from all walks of life, none of whom can be expected to concern themselves with the fitness of the vessel they’ve just boarded) is largely a matter of aesthetics.
Aesthetics are often every bit as important in a well functioning society as any technocratic concerns. The image of Bounty foundering, the thought of her crew in peril, the cost and risk of the rescue effort; these things offend our sensibilities, as well they should.