In the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX troubles the purpose of aircraft certification has come under fire. It was intense fire too, as the subject was taken into the political arena. Both informed, and not so informed public accusations had to be addressed in a comprehensive and systematic manner. The outcome is real change impacting the way organisations and administrations work.
A basic framework is set by international agreement. The standards and recommended practices of ICAO Annex 8 sets a framework within which aircraft certification work is undertaken. Across the globe Administrations/ Agencies/Authorities cooperate to set common minimum standards.
We can talk about process, procedures and standards until the cows come home. These are ever evolving to cope with technical challenges and the experience of operation. What’s more fundamental, and almost never mentioned is what practitioners do day-to-day. Ultimately, despite the subject being highly technical it is people that are at the core of the activity.
Practical necessity mean that an aircraft project has an ambition and a time scale. Although projects are often known to overrun there’s no infinite pot of resources to carry on regardless. Good project management can be the make or break in realising an ambition.
What that means is that there is a constraint on aircraft certification. There is a window of opportunity to undertake the work in a comprehensive and systematic manner.
The true art becomes asking the right question at the right time. Yes, there is an intricate structure within which questions are asked but it is the nature of those questions that makes the diffidence. Ask a bland and easily answered question and the value added is negligible. Ask a probing and pertinent question and it can lead to a better and safer product.
The importance of the act of asking questions is underestimated. It’s not well taught. For the most part technical experts learn to do this on the job. From one project to the next they develop a set of approaches based on experience. Members of Administrations/ Agencies/Authorities have a great privilege in that they can expect their questions to be answered in full.
There’s a peer-to-peer relationship. To ask an effective question, technical experts on either side of the table don’t have to know everything the other knows. What is needed is a mutual respect and a sufficiency of command of a subject. Being able to pinpoint a gap or omission or inadequate coverage of a subject, or even waffle and evasion requires an intelligent and determined person.