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Key Findings

More than 2,300 people have been killed from ice buildup on aircraft, problems on runways, faulty aircraft maintenance and repairs and overtired pilots, despite dozens of NTSB recommendations to address those problems.
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No Way To Know
Legislating Safety
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The FAA has not implemented four of the recommendations made by the NTSB regarding this crash, according to NTSB data. One safety suggestion called for specialized training for mechanics who lubricate horizontal stabilizers and the inspectors who oversee them and another asked the FAA to re-examine its rules about how often certain airplane parts should be inspected or repaired.

In a statement, the FAA said that it took steps after the Alaska Flight 261 accident that met “the safety intent” of the NTSB recommendation. Those steps included new directives on jackscrew lubrication and inspection and guidelines for monitoring the effectiveness of training programs.

Three years after the Alaska Airlines crash another stabilizer system broke on Air Midwest Flight 5481.

About one minute after takeoff, the cable system in the plane’s tail malfunctioned because it was rigged incorrectly, making it difficult for the pilot to control the craft’s up-and-down movement. The plane, which was traveling from North Carolina to South Carolina, also was carrying too much weight. It careened into a hanger at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and caught fire. Twenty-one people were killed.

A mechanic receiving on-the-job training at Raytheon Aerospace in Huntington, W. Va., last repaired the system of cables in the plane’s stabilizer. Air Midwest had outsourced the plane’s maintenance checks to Raytheon, and Raytheon had outsourced the stabilizer checks to a mechanic from Structural Modification and Repair Technicians.

Investigators learned that the mechanic and the Raytheon inspector supervising the mechanic had skipped steps while rigging the cables in the stabilizer.

The maintenance facility in this case was not certified by the FAA, Goodrich said, adding that when an airline outsources multiple times “it becomes such a complicated, scary scenario of lack of control.”

Seven years later, the FAA has not followed two NTSB recommendations associated with the Air Midwest crash, according to NTSB data. One safety suggestion would prohibit the person training a mechanic from serving as the inspector on the same part; the other would create more supervision of work done by contracted mechanics.

In a statement, the FAA said it already prohibits personnel who perform maintenance from doing required inspections on the work they’ve done and it already requires air carriers and their maintenance contractors to use qualified inspectors. “Therefore, we believe we have met the safety intent of the NTSB recommendation,” the statement said.

Lawmakers Step In

The FAA Reauthorization Act, which is pending in Congress, would bolster requirements for FAA inspections and drug and alcohol testing at foreign repair stations.

The Aeronautical Repair Station Association views the Senate version of the legislation as the “lesser of the two evils,” spokesman Fisher said. That version does not require twice-yearly FAA inspections and drug and alcohol testing in countries that have bilateral safety agreements with the U.S. The bill in the House would require both for any FAA certified repairs station around the world.

“In some countries it’s illegal to drug test,” Fisher said, adding that a bill to require such countries to drug and alcohol test its employees is not respectful of the laws of those nations. “Both versions (of the bill) will drive up costs for aviation maintenance companies serving international customers and make U.S. repair stations less competitive,” he said.

Foreign repair stations have been a topic for lobbyists in Washington, judging by lobbyist spending reports made public through the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act. Boeing, British Airways, Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, the Cargo Airline Association, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the Bombardier Transit Corp. and the Aerospace Industries Association are just some of the groups that have spent money to lobby on the issue.

Goodrich says the FAA inspectors’ union supports the more strongly worded legislation, because public safety should always come first.

“There’s nothing wrong with people trying to save money but not at the expense of safety,” she said. “The taxpayers are and should demand the highest standards for their safety.”

News21 reporters Charlie Litton and Tessa Muggeridge contributed to this report.

Sept. 26, 2010

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