Keeping track of bits of paper lends little glamour to aviation, but it's part of your job as a pilot and carries significant penalties if not properly done. It's true that the airplane flies just as well with and without paper, but a discrepancy in paperwork can point the way to a safety issue in the airplane itself. And I have a story, which I believe is true, told to me by someone who works in a charter company flight department. Identifying information has been changed to keep everyone out of more trouble than they're already in. It's a story about how a lack of paperwork tried to kill people.
It starts with e-mail between the flight department and the company's assigned Transport Canada inspector. The company was working on an amended Operations Manual (amending manuals is a never-ending process, and all changes must be approved by Transport), so the e-mail was in relation to that
Please look at Appendix "B" amendment #3, shouldn't this be Appendix "C"?
Because, you know, the airplane is going to crash and burn if the pages in the manual aren't numbered correctly. The savvy ops manager leaves a few easily rectified errors of this type in the manual, so that Transport can spot them, and then, feeling useful, approve the corrected version. But the e-mail continued.
I received a notice today that you have removed VBP from your operating certificate, did you sell the aircraft?
It was the second part that chilled my informant's blood. The inspector received a notice that the company removed VBP? That's not a good sign, as VBP was parked at an airport overseas, ready to fly back to Canada early that afternoon. A telephone call to the inspector confirmed that according to Transport Canada licencing, the airplane in question was no longer registered to the company. What? Airplane identity theft?
The airplane I'm calling VBP was not owned by the company, but leased. That's not in itself a problem; leasing is a perfectly acceptable tool in fleet management. In order for an airplane owned by another party to appear on a Canadian operating certificate, there needs to be paperwork. In this case the lessor and the lessee had signed a lease agreement granting use of the airplane for one year. Problem was that that paperwork had been signed and dated fourteen months earlier. A replacement lease agreement was actually signed in the month after the expiry of the first one, but due to a change in personnel in the company, and the rate at which paper accumulates in aviation, the new agreement didn't get sent to Transport. It didn't get sent anywhere, was just quietly buried like an archeological treasure, on someone's desk.
When Transport didn't receive proof of a renewal of the agreement, they cancelled VBP's registry. And fortunately the person responsible had a strong heart, for he survived the shock of discovery.
This is where it pays to have established a reputation for doing ones best to comply with the regulations. The person into whose desk strata the document had been fossilized made the confessional call to the head of the appropriate Transport Canada department.
"How do I reinstate this aircraft."
"Well, is VBJ on the ground?"
"Then it's really easy - just get the aircraft copy of the C of R and fill out the form on the back of it, then fax it in to me."
"Umm, the thing about that is the airplane is on the ground, but it's in another country."
"Oh"....long pause...."Well I guess we'll have to do it the hard way."
Transport faxed some forms to fill out, and then they had to go online in order to pay $60 for a temporary Certificate of Registration and $110 for a permanent one, and print out the receipts. Next step was to fax in those receipts, along with the completed forms, and wait and hope every t was crossed and i dotted.
Meanwhile the crew of VBP were far away, innocently preparing to depart for Canada. A call from company advised the captain to pick up a fax from the FBO before he left. He said sure and went back to preparing for the flight.
VBP was scheduled to depart at 1 pm, and at 12:47 pm the temporary C of R rolled out of the company fax machine in Canada. They turned around and faxed it to the overseas FBO, where the missing paperwork tried a second time to claim the life of a pilot.
Despite the $3-per-minute charge, the overseas pilot called the home office using his personal cellphone. "What the hell? Why do I have a new C of R?"
"Long story. Just be glad you have it."
"What do you guys do in the office all day? Think of ways to give me a heart attack?"
"Yes. Yes we do."
That's the real reason they give us an ECG every second medical. They need to make sure our hearts can withstand this kind of shock.