World War 2 aircraft firm hit by ‘maintenance fraud’ probe
Civil Aviation Authority steps in after whistleblower reveals how service books were allegedly doctored to fly plane to US
A renowned SA pilot and his business are at the centre of a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) probe into the alleged forging of maintenance documents to export a World War 2-era aircraft to the US.
In February, the CAA temporarily shut the maintenance operations of former SAA pilot Flippie Vermeulen’s aviation safari and restoration company, Springbok Classic Air, pending the outcome of its investigation. The company operates from Rand Airport outside Johannesburg.
Leaked e-mails show the CAA was alerted by the company’s former aircraft maintenance engineer (AME), Marthinus Potgieter, to the alleged duplication of his service stamp to declare two Douglas DC-3s airworthy.
In October 2018, Potgieter discovered his stamp had been used to sign off on the aircraft’s inspection so the CAA could issue a certificate for it to be exported to New York. The aircraft’s registration number is ZS-CAI, fondly known among aviation enthusiasts as “Charlie”.
The stamp was also allegedly used to try to register ZS-NTE, which is currently based in Germany, in Europe.
For aircraft to be registered in Europe, stringent safety and maintenance protocols must be followed.
Sources say that en route to the US in October the crew of ZS-CAI made an unscheduled landing in the Azores after encountering mid-air problems, prompting a European Aviation Authority safety inquiry.
Potgieter claims his stamp was used while he was holidaying in Thailand. Shortly before his holiday, he had grounded ZS-CAI because of maintenance problems.
Potgieter and Vermeulen began working together in 2012, when the former based his apprentice maintenance school at Vermeulen’s hanger. In return, Potgieter oversaw the maintenance on Vermeulen’s DC-3s.
“In 2017, with my school growing, I moved to a new premises. But I continued to oversee the maintenance,” said Potgieter.
He first became concerned in 2017 when he discovered some maintenance was being conducted without his knowledge. “Aircraft maintenance engineers must always be kept informed of services.”
When confronted, Vermeulen had assured Potgieter it wouldn’t happen again.
Potgieter said that in June 2018, when CAA inspectors arrived to verify documents, he discovered work had again been done on ZS-CAI, in preparation for its export, without his knowledge.
“The documents were stamped with my stamp without my knowledge. Flippie’s son, Ben, gave me the documents and said sign.”
E-mails Times Select has seen show that Ben Vermeulen later apologised to Potgieter.
Translated from Afrikaans to English, the e-mails read: “The reason for the e-mail is, first of all, to ask you for your forgiveness for not letting you know to come and look at the work we did on engines. I know there’s no excuse for it ... I would just like to put my side by saying that I NEVER used your stamp without your permission and will NEVER do it ... If I embarrassed you about the X-port C or A’s inspection, I ask for your forgiveness. That inspection came to me so fast I didn’t even know which way to go. I didn’t plan it that way.”
Ben Vermeulen failed to respond to WhatsApp questions from Times Select.
Potgieter said Ben Vermeulen was an aircraft mechanic, not an AME. ”AME licences enable one to work on specific aircraft. If you don’t have a licence, an AME must supervise the mechanic.
“I confronted the company’s quality control officer because I suspected my stamp was duplicated, but the duplicate could not be found.”
He said in July 2018 he discovered Ben Vermeulen travelled to Germany to work on ZS-NTE.
Potgieter said that shortly before going to Thailand in September he saw ZS-CAI’s panels were open.
On inspection he found the aircraft riddled with corrosion and worn flight control cables.
Despite ordering the aircraft be grounded until he returned, he saw on Facebook that the plane was flagged to fly at an airshow.
“I contacted Flippie and told him both ZS-CAI and ZS-NTE were to be grounded until I could inspect them. Days later I was e-mailed and told ZS-CAI was to fly to the US and two other AMEs had signed off on it. When I returned, ZS-CAI was flying to the US.”
He claims that, despite requests, he never received the aircraft’s service documents, with the two AMEs telling him they never serviced ZS-CAI.
Days after returning, Ben Vermeulen notified Potgieter that his services were no longer needed.
“I alerted the CAA and told them ZS-CAI was flown with problems which could not be shown to have been fixed. I also told them about my ZS-NTE concerns.”
An insider with knowledge of CAA’s investigation said there were reasons for concern: “Not all the signatures on the documents are Potgieter’s.”
Flippie Vermeulen said his son has had CAA-approved company certification since 2015 to release the Airframes Category with specific qualification on the DC-3.
“The application of any stamp is associated with a specific, dedicated and CAA-approved signature where and when required. To allege Ben has used his stamp illegally is absurd.”
He said other service providers had been contracted in for years to release any work on the engines.
Vermeulen said the original documentation of all aircraft had been available to the CAA since November 2018, and had been comprehensively scrutinised. “We are more than willing to make all of this documentation available to the CAA again. It would be easy to forensically determine if any signatures have been forged.”
They would co-operate with the CAA in way required.
‘Some things don’t add up’
CAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba said the authority was investigating the conduct of individuals implicated in audit findings, and “the necessary enforcement actions will be taken once the investigations have been completed”.
He said ther were questions that required clarity around the export of the aircraft, “especially the circumstances around the events, documentation, and processes leading up to the exports and after the exporting of the aircraft”.
“In simple terms, some of the things don’t add up as they should.”
In November the authority had found serious issues of non-compliance during a renewal of Springbok Aviation Services’s air maintenance organisation (AMO) certificate. The renewal application had been unsuccessful, with findings, after the submission of revised corrective action plans, not adequately addressed.
“The AMO certificate expired in November. Currently, this company does not have a valid AMO (certificate).”