Canada 1, 3rd June 2006

You may have noticed a change in the title. It's not because I am there, it's because I am planning to go there.............

I've also had to send the email out twice. For some reason I can't send using my usual ISP, earthlink, so I'm having to use hotmail. And hotmail has a maximum of 50 recipients for an email.

But to continue from my last Eletter. (Good name that, I got it from Robert Willbanks. He's new on my list, but not new to balloons)

To revert. I got my computer back, more or less working. I found it was trying to boot from my second hard drive which had an incomplete version of Windows 98 - when it stopped being my primary hard drive, I deleted lots of stuff. So, I changed the booting sequence and all was OK. I told the boss, he offered to credit the new hard drive they had fitted since it hadn't been needed. I said, no way, it's used now. You got my computer working. I'm happy. Thanks he said, I'll invite you to bottle of champagne, I come from the champagne region, I have really good champagne. So we've got a date, for Christmas!

I booked my flight from Paris to Dallas, for the 27th May. The deal is, I drive to Paris, 800 km (500 miles), have dinner with my daughter, she drives me to the airport, then borrows my car for the next 6 months. It's not hard to work out who is the winner in that deal.

I got to Dallas without problem, checked into a hotel, and next morning took a taxi from the hotel to the Greyhound bus terminal in Dallas. Then a taxi from Longview to my RV since Tim couldn't meet me and Micki was not replying to emails.

I was shaken when I reached Micki's workshop on the Sunday afternoon. Tony and Adam were there tidying up. They told me Micki's repair station had been closed down by the FAA, not because of any problems with her workmanship, but because some paperwork had not been correctly completed. Micki was not there, she was ill, and staying with her mother in Longview.

I needed to stay around for a few days, I needed to get hold of a copy of the RV insurance certificate so that I could tax it, and also have it technically inspected. The next day after I arrived was Monday, and I expected to make a start on these, and more jobs. Tim had looked after the motor side of the van, he's replaced both batteries and some relays and checked it over, it was going great, but I found the water pump, in the living side of the van was not working, and the refrigerator would only run on mains electricity, not propane. I could light the flame but it did not cool. There are not too many sources of mains power when you are driving, or camping in a National Forest, or parked at a Wal-Mart. For this work I needed a specialist RV repair shop.

Unfortunately I discovered that Monday was Memorial Day, a national holiday, I could get to Wal-Mart, but not get to the other jobs. I passed the day unpacking and checking through the van, and also tried to find more about Micki's closure, from my various sources..

It seems the main problem was that she was using fabric although of a high quality was not officially FAA approved. Now this normally is OK apparently if you use a form 337 (whatever that is) but Micki had been told by the previous FAA inspector that after she had completed one 337, they were not needed any more. The current inspector disagreed, and said that even with a 337 this was not acceptable, and wanted to ground all the balloons she had ever worked on. This is notwithstanding the fact that this self same fabric is used by 3 different manufacturers in their approved balloons, and is also used by many of the better class repair stations in the US. Even the repair station in the next city, where Micki used to work, has been using this fabric for 10 or 12 years without problem, working with a different inspector. I believe most of all these are using the 337 system, accepted by all but this particular inspector.

The inspector said Micki was not allowed to rebuild any more balloons and ripped the approval certificate from the wall. I gathered he had made many trivial complaints about other things that Micki had done, such as having pictures of balloons on the walls, items of a personal nature he said were not allowed in the workshop. I've been in a very pleasant and extremely long established repair shop, with one of the best reputations in the US, where the dining table, the settee, and even the TV were in a corner of the workshop, they lived on the premises. The inspector (Micki's) had demanded a workshop manual be produced almost immediately, and when produced found complaints everywhere in the manual, even in sections that had been approved in other repair station's manuals. He refused to give any help in answering his complaints and said Micki must look it up in the rules herself.

Velcro, he said, had to be bought from the appropriate manufacturer even though, apart from velcro rip balloons, it's use is not in any way structural, being used only as temporary use inflation tabs, or for the attachment of banners.

Micki kept parts from the different manufacturers in bins labelled appropriately, Cameron, Lindstrand, etc., etc. Oh no he said, that was not good enough, each part had to be in it's own separate bin.

I found out that many complaints had been made against this man, that he had even closed down a brand new helicopter facility filled with new helicopters, that he was disliked by his fellow inspectors in Dallas who considered him overbearing, and that he had filed a request to move, within one month of his posting to Dallas, which had been refused. It seems to me very much like he was taking his grievance out on his "clients"

Micki personally had had a bad year, losing 6 members of her family, including her father and sister, plus several friends, and had to find an assisted home for her mother. Normally she would have jumped back and fought these unpleasant and unreasonable demands but after the year that she had had, she told me later, she just did not have the fight left in her to go against him. The inspector was not prepared to allow any tolerance caused by her personal difficulties.

To my knowledge there has never been even any suggestion of a complaint about the quality of Micki's work, certainly in my opinion, and that of many others, she is one of the best balloon reconstructors that there is, anywhere.

When I found Micki, after more than 2 months, she was still in a state of shock. All this investment in her balloon business was gone. All those clients who trusted her were in danger of having their balloons declared unairworthy. And all she had done was, on the advice of an inspector, was to have not completed paperwork that it turned out later should have been completed. She hadn't looked at emails for 2 months or listened to answermachine messages, and wasn't answering the phone. I checked the mailbox and took over one months worth of mail over to her shop.

I think it a shocking indictment of the American FAA, that it is possible for one unpleasant man can go against the normal principles of his colleagues and force a closure of a workshop were the actual quality of work is so high. Normally an inspector will try to ensure all rules are completed with, rather than closing down someone who has inadvertently erred. To ruin someone's business, and life, for a relatively minor infringement is unforgivable. Totally unforgivable.

I'll apologise right now to anyone reading this who is not interested in balloons, but to me the matter is important. I'll add, for anyone
interested but who does not know, that I am not unknowledgable about the subject, some many years ago, for about 5 years , I was in charge of all certification work - all certification work - on all balloons manufactured in, or registered in, the UK, at the time the largest manufacturer of balloons in the world. Although obviously today I do not in any way speak officially, I just mention it as background.

I've now left Marshall, I'm in Paris, Texas, and there was nearly a Little Cat 3. But I'll tell you about all that later........And next time you'll get some photos..............

Best regards

David Barker
On the road in the USA

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