by Robert Green
Jerry Blawat is a firefighter.
During his first 10 years in this capacity, Blawat served as a pilot for the Air Operations Division of Aero Union Corp., a leading company in the aerial firefighting industry.
Air Operations is responsible for operating, maintaining and deploying Aero Union's fleet of 13 aerial firefighting tankers. The division maintains eight P3 Orions, three SP2H
Neptunes and two DC-4 Sky Masters ready for instant dispatch by the U.S. Forest Service, the California Division of Forestry and the Bureau of Land Management to destinations as distant from the
company's Chico, California, headquarters as Florida.
Now, however, Blawat is stationed on a new front. He works for Aero Union's Airborne Systems Development Group, which
specializes in converting used military or commercial aircraft into aerial firefighting machines by designing, manufacturing and installing fire-retardant delivery systems.
Nevertheless, Blawat is still a firefighter. And though the fires he puts out on a daily basis don't threaten acres of dense forest, hillside homes or helpless wildlife, the intensity and
critical nature of the fires he does fight are of at least similar magnitude.
Jerry Blawat is a quality manager.
"Working for Air Operations was a little like going off to join the
circus," Blawat remembers. "It's far from child's play, but there's a lot of standby
time and not much warning once it is time to go to work fighting fires.
My current assignment requires a completely different mindset."
Blawat is a
soft-spoken man who addresses visitors to his office, which he shares with his assistant Jeana Palmer, in a manner that makes two things unmistakable: first, his capacity for understanding and
memorizing very detailed information, and second, his patient nature. And to determine the source of both of these qualities, Palmer suggests one must only survey the 12 x 20 ft office space
Blawat calls home 40-50 hours a week. "That's the approach he has to take," she says.
The compliance game
Bookcase-lined walls house scores of three- and four-inch ivory-colored binders filled with manufacturing manuals, procedures, engineering data and military standard
requirements. In contrast to the colorless field those binders create, on the bottom shelf of the case closest to Blawat's desk lies the bible for all those in the aerospace manufacturing
industry. A brightly colored, paperbound tome overstuffed with small, tightly arranged text and nearly no illustrations, Code of Federal Regulations: Title 14, Part 21 dwarfs a metropolitan phone
book, and it contains just some of the regulations that Blawat has to know inside and out. Also a manufacturer of aerial fueling systems, Aero Union, and the products it manufactures, have to
comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, military standards and the company's own internal quality procedures.
To make things a little more complicated, the
modified aircraft and products Blawat's division produces are sold to an assortment of customers, from foreign governments to U.S. state and federal agencies. And with such a varied customer
pool, come a whole host of additional and yes, varied, requirements.
Indeed, Aero Union's ASDG is really a job shop, albeit a job shop whose projects regularly top the $1
million mark. Nevertheless, receiving a custom order for an aerial firefighting system they've never before manufactured is commonplace for the 75 employees of the ASDG. And even when working on
a system they have built in the past--allowing Aero Union engineers to draw on their past experience, design data and certifications--there's still a number of regulatory hoops to jump through.
When working on a prototype project, the task is all the more complicated.
Before committing to a new prototype contract, Aero Union starts by completing some
preliminary engineering work. Only after engineers have assessed the requirements, approximate cost and feasibility of a proposed project will the company commit to a contract.
A major thrust of this preliminary engineering research is determining which systems (e.g., hydraulic systems, noise, electrical, aerodynamics, and weight and balance) of
the aircraft to be modified will be affected by the add-on system. "Then you're ready to call the FAA and schedule a kickoff meeting," Blawat explains.
At such a meeting, FAA experts in a variety of aviation systems work with the company to develop project-specific certification and conformity plans, which serve as
roadmaps for completing the project. It's within the certification plan that any initial FAA concerns, and required steps for addressing them, are spelled out. "If, for
instance, an FAA official believes our modification would strain the plane's hydraulic system, a schedule is included for testing and submitting additional engineering data to
the FAA for approval," explains Blawat.
Once Aero Union completes and passes the ensuing conformity inspection, as well as
other tests that validate the plane's airworthiness and maintenance schedule, the FAA awards a Type Inspection Authorization. Prior to the submission of the TIA, Aero
Union must collect documentation verifying the aircraft's conformance to its type design data and compliance to an approved maintenance program. For example, the
company is required to produce evidence that the
aircraft's flight instruments have been calibrated within 60 days. "These airworthiness
requirements are obviously of the highest importance to the FAA because it's going to be one of their own pilots in this plane when it comes time for the test flight," Blawat adds.
When it does come time for that test flight, an FAA pilot ensures that the aircraft with
the Aero Union modification hasn't taken on any adverse flight characteristics. "It's also the time when they test any issues they may have suspected during the previous steps,"
"Next you start gathering all of the flight test data, the conformity data for every part
that went into the modification, test data for critical components, the weight/balance data, the aircraft airworthiness data compiled before the test flight, and you present it to
the FAA." If all is in compliance at that point, the FAA issues Aero Union a Supplemental Type Certificate, which allows the company to manufacture the same
system for installation on other planes of the same model. Additional certification, called Parts Manufacturing Authority, is required before the company can manufacture the
product for installation on noncompany-owned planes under the STC.
Holding all the cards
Once Aero Union holds the STC and PMA for a specific modification of a specific aircraft, Blawat's job gets easier--but just a little.
"Aero Union holds about 20 STCs," Blawat says. "But that doesn't mean the game is
over." His company is still responsible for maintaining records showing that all its work is completed in accordance with the approved drawings and specs.
"You maintain all of your manufacturing data and build the parts to the approved data. Then you make sure that every part has been inspected and you have records to prove
it. You build the tank and hang it on the plane," Blawat explains with a certain sense of simplicity that's surely absent from the actual process: Just because Aero Union has
completed a similar project in the past, a complex manufacturing job doesn't always go exactly by the books.
What if a discrepancy is found during production that makes building exactly to the engineering data impossible? "As we begin building, especially in a prototype situation,
there are a lot of changes being made," Blawat confirms. "That's why engineering is going on all the way through the prototype manufacturing process.
"We have several documents that we use to record the use of a part that doesn't meet with its design data. If the discrepancy is simple, like an improperly driven rivet, we'll
write up a rework order, which is only used for minor issues.
"If we run into a major issue, such as needing to move a major component due to a
clearance problem, we'll write up a discrepancy report--a more formal document, copies of which are routed to several key people throughout the manufacturing
process." Discrepancy reports have two components: disposition, which deals with fixing the issue for the given project, and corrective action, which addresses preventing
the issue in future projects.
"And the two can be vastly different," adds Blawat. "If a hole is drilled too big, the
disposition may be scraping the part and making a new one, this time drilling as per the design data. The corrective action for this issue, however, might be additional training
or reorganizing the drill index.
"If we can resolve an issue in this manner between manufacturing and engineering,
that's what we'll do. But sometimes, our in-process inspector might not buy into the proposed fix. Then the issue is presented to our material review board, which decides
on a solution after discussing all of the alternatives.
"It works a bit like a court system. If you can arbitrate and get it settled, OK. But if
you can't, it goes to the lower court. And if that doesn't work, it goes to the supreme court: the MRB."
It's audit time
Part of Blawat's job is to ensure that there's always a precise and accurate paper trail.
At any given time, an FAA audit can require Blawat to produce documentation to demonstrate that his company is meeting the regulatory requirements for everything
from the storage and tracking of incoming raw materials to design data and inspection record document control to statistical evaluation of any and all processes. Another
focus of FAA audits, which Aero Union undergoes about once every two years, is the company's manufacturing manual.
"Our FAA-approved Part 21 Manufacturing Manual serves as the blueprint of our entire manufacturing system," Blawat explains. "The Federal Aviation Regulations are all
written by attorneys, not engineers. So subsequently, FARs don't provide methods of compliance; they don't exactly explain how to get there."
Quality management in a highly regulated industry presents scores of unique
challenges, the most obvious and formidable of which is simply the scope and number of those regulations.
In addition to the document control, procedure writing, process control, inspection and testing, and tooling responsibilities common to any quality manager in
manufacturing, Blawat must also juggle FAA regulatory compliance, compliance to military standards MIL-I- 45208 and MIL-Q-9858A when building a system for a
foreign government, and U.S. State Department export regulations for selling defense-sensitive products overseas, just to name a few.
Soon, however, Blawat will have to clear out some additional space in his closet, as management is asking him to wear yet another hat. "We're committed to becoming
registered to ISO 9001:2000 within the year," he explains. "We've hired consultants to help us and we're holding weekly two-hour meetings in this effort."
Aero Union manufacturing, purchasing, facility, engineering, sales and--of course--quality assurance, managers attend these meetings, which until recently were
held twice a week. And partly because a successful ISO 9001 implementation should help to squelch small fires before they become infernos, Blawat isn't anxious about the
additional time strain the effort might likely mean.
"No, I'm not, because I see a considerable benefit to the registration and system
reorganization," he proudly declares. "Plus, I always have room for a few more three-inch binders."
About the author
Robert Green is Quality Digest's news editor. E-mail him at contact_us