Time to get real: Zealous regulators are hazards to aviation

In olden times – that’s 60 to 70 years ago – wrist watches with glow-in-the-dark radium numbers were popular. Whether we wore a Timex or a Rolex, that’s what we wanted.

In those days, many aircraft instruments glowed in the dark. That, too, was accomplished with minute amounts of radium-226. Thousands of World War II crews flew tens of thousands of missions in cockpits with radium dials. Their cancer rate is no higher than anyone else’s.

There is a warehouse containing World War II aircraft instruments at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport (SBY) in Maryland. To a warbird purist or museum curator, they are valuable artifacts. To environmental protection authorities, they are hazardous waste.

The warehouse sits on five acres of land designated for airport expansion, but on Sept. 29 the Maryland Department of Environment gave the Wicomico County Council 60 days in which to submit a plan for “proper” disposal of the material. Whether the cost and other remediation requirements will affect those expansion plans is unknown, so far. “We’ll deal with it,” said airport manager Bob Bryant.

Although the land is owned by the county, the warehouse belongs to Chesapeake Airways, which has been there since the 1940s. The FAA required the county to buy the land before issuing a grant for runway extensions and other improvements. The deal included FAA funds to help relocate the Chesapeake Airways inventory. Neither the county, Chesapeake Airways nor the FAA had any knowledge of potential hazards.

Part of the inventory relocation involved trucking some junk to a landfill in Baltimore County, where sensitive equipment detected radium-226 traces on the truck, which had been inside the Chesapeake Airways warehouse. That triggered an investigation by state environmental officials.

There are about 3,000 old instruments in the warehouse, Bryant said. Those that are intact are safe, but any with cracked or missing glass could be a problem from flaking paint. The extent of that problem – if it exists – was unknown at press time.

We do know that airports at Chino and North Hollywood, Calif., are in the midst of multi-million-dollar problems, having been declared Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency for similar reasons: millions of old aircraft instruments were stored there. The cleanup cost, so far, has exceeded $7 million.

Now, consider this: If you own an airplane built before the 1960s and the markings on its original instruments are turning yellow, you have radium-226 on board. Is that hazardous to your health? Well, that depends on who you ask, but serious science indicates that it takes an awful lot of the stuff to affect anyone’s health. But what’s an awful lot? Is it 3,000 old airplane instruments stored in a metal building? Is it several million? What will happen when you sell that airplane? If you’re going to ask the EPA, don’t wear your antique Rolex.


Here’s an example that may strike readers as obscure, but which could have serious safety consequences: The European Union has mandated that electronics made after July 1, 2006, may not contain lead or other metals deemed dangerous. Several U.S. states seem eager to go along with the ban, and our federal government appears to be falling into line.

Lead-based solder is used in most avionics components. Manufacturers of commercial electronics are moving to pure tin as a substitute, particularly in China. In the United States, avionics manufacturers, Arinc and NASA are warning that tin has a nefarious characteristic that can affect reliability and, thus, safety.

Tin grows electrically-conductive “whiskers” over time. Hair-like, they can be as long as half an inch. NASA studies show that they can cause short-circuits, posing “a serious reliability risk to electronic assemblies.” The agency attributes at least three commercial satellite failures to that very phenomenon. Tin also requires higher soldering temperatures, which affect the reliability of many electronic components.

Military specifications bar pure tin in electronics, but NASA believes that tin already is in some commercial avionics. Arinc has formed a group to devise standards for the airworthiness of components, while Airbus, Boeing, Rockwell Collins and others, with FAA backing, insist that suppliers notify them of any plans to transition to lead-free electronics, even where required by laws such as the European Union’s. There are serious questions of whether components complying with such rules are even capable of being certified as airworthy.

Is lead solder a serious hazard to assemblers, repairmen and the soil of landfills? I don’t know, but I’m automatically skeptical of information from the notoriously anti-business European Union. Does whatever hazard may exist outweigh aviation safety? Not in my book.

It strikes me that, if there is a threat, it comes from bureaucratic overreaction. But bureaucratic overreaction is a fact of life in today’s world, and costs tons of money.

These problems may appear obscure. Like the egregious EU proposal to tax emissions from airplanes, you may think they can’t affect you. Well, think again. “Obscure” regulatory matters have a habit of biting us when we aren’t looking.

These examples tell me that it’s time to be realistic, not only about whether old radium paint and modern lead solder really can hurt us, but to what extent the regulators will hurt us.

Thomas F. Norton is senior editor of General Aviation News.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *