Tag Archives: Airbus 330

Am I “On Crack” When It Comes to Flight 447?

PUB_GT_Aircraft_Composite_Content_1980-2010_lgThat’s what one of my readers wants to know. He made this comment in response to my coverage of the Air France 447 disaster, which questions whether the growing use of composite  materials in aircraft construction might have played a role in this and other recent crashes. I think it’s a pretty important subject of inquiry, since more and more of these fiber and resin materials are used in commercial airplanes every year. And apparently a lot of people are as riveted by this subject as I am, since there’s plenty of discussion on the web, and even a larger than usual number of comments on my own posts.

My original long post on this subject inspired one comment from someone who lost a relative on American Airlines Flight 587, also in the Airbus 300 series, which crashed in New York City in 2001 after its composite-made vertical stabilizer detatched in flight–something that might or might not have happened on AF 447. He wonders whether there have been “instances where a metal vertical stabilizer has broken off the fuselage, in-flight, on large conventional passenger jets.” I don’t know the answer to his question, but I’ve sent it to people more knowledgable than myself, and hope to have a response I can pass on soon.

The rest of the comments on this post (including one from an aircraft engineer and one from an Airbus 330 captain and instructor) accuse me of being irresponsible and inflammatory. One says that I might as well have asked whether aliens shot down AF 447.  Another inquired, “Are you on crack?” and then went on to say that “implying that composite parts caused the vertical stabilizer to detach from AF447, and thus doomed the flight, is premature at best, and irresponsible as a whole.”   

I encourage everyone to read all of these critical comments, which are written by knowledgable people and contain valuable information. As someone who has a ticket on an Air France Airbus A340 next month, I sincerely hope they’re right in saying that the composite parts are safe. I agree that it is “premature” to conclude that these parts played a role in the AF 447 and/or AA 587 flights. I also believe it is premature to conclude that they didn’t play any role. And I’d feel a lot better if we knew for sure, before sending any more jetloads of people out over the Atlantic Ocean in these planes.

My posts on this subject are intended to raise questions, not answer them. So far, all anyone has is questions. Even though some 400 pieces of wreckage have now been recovered, French investigators today stated:  “We don’t have new specific information that allows us to say this is what happened.” This means that we can’t rule out the possibility that composite parts were a contributory factor, just as we can’t rule out a number of other possible causes.

What concerns me most is what seem to me well-substantiated claims that the composite parts may not have undergone sufficient testing before new aircraft models began flying, and that they now lack effective routine ground testing between flights. These issues were raised by such reliable sources as the New Scientist, which recently published an update on the subject. If nothing else, the AF 447 crash suggests that we ought to take a serious look at the efficacy of testing protocols for composite aircraft construction, especially before the new generation of high-composite planes starts flying.

I’ve also gotten some comments from friends who wonder why I’m writing so much about airplane safety on a blog that’s supposed to be about the politics of aging, from the point of view of an old person. The only age-related reason I can give is that I grew up in an era before there was such a thing as a consumer safety movement, and that I happen to have been a witness (and perhaps even a minor participant) in the birth of this movement. 

ccb6eb6709a0fb1280861110_L__AA240_Back in the mid-1960s,  I began reporting on a car called the Chevy Corvair. At the time, the safety problems in that vehicle were being brought to life by an obscure young consumer activist named Ralph Nader. I was widely attacked as an irresponsible alarmist, while the auto industry responded with a blizzard of experts and even put a detective on Nader to try and get something on his personal life to smear him. But Nader perservered, and the questions he raised were taken up first by the late New York Senator Pat Moynihan and later by Bobby Kennedy. This eventually led to the institution of the first auto safety standards.

My response to the experts charging journalists like myself with ignorance and sensationalism is: Answer our questions and respond to the general public, which you serve. The aircraft industry and the airlines would be nowhere without the subsidies we taxpayers fork out through the federal government, and the tickets we buy on these planes. We have every right to ask questions of any conceivable sort, and to expect clear, evidence-based answers. There are always, in such cases, conspiracy theorists who won’t be satisfied by any amount of evidence. I’m not one of them, and neither, I believe, are many of the others who are asking similar questions–and getting a similar mix of (approving and attacking) comments in response.

I would also argue that we also have every reason to be skeptical, knowing how much money the aircraft manufacturers have sunk into the future of composite parts–and also knowing the airlines’ history of putting profits before public safety, and the FAA’s weaknesses in holding them accountable. This was one of the grim lessons people should have learned from 9/11, if they hadn’t learned it already.

It isn’t the public’s job–or mine–to prove that airplanes (or cars, or food additives, or prescription drugs, or any other product upon which our health and safety depend) are not safe. It’s the job of the corporations that make these products to prove to us that they are safe. Right now, I have my doubts about the safety of certain aircraft. I’m waiting–and hoping–to be proved wrong.

Making Money: Another Factor in the Air France 447 Disaster?

Cost-cutting could be yet another factor in the Air France 447 crash. I have described and quoted from various articles and blogs where pilots, meteorologists and other experts are trying to figure out what might have happened. From my point of view the most helpful has been the initial detailed meterological report by Tim Vasquez of Weather Graphics  and the subsequent discussion boards he has set up. On one of them devoted to opinions of pilots and experts, I found this entry, from “Kye,’’ which is certainly worth thinking about:

We do now know, from some the reports of the floating wreckage, that the plane appears to have been laterally fractured, rather than broken into pieces from the impact of the ocean.  What this evidence strongly suggest is, the plane appears to have broken apart in mid air, perhaps by the extreme pounding it took from the storm, which may have caused its wings and vertical stablizer to be shear off, or the plane’s body to be split from the opposing torque placed on both wings.  If the plane was turning to get out of the storm, particularly while fighting a strong updraft, I can imagine that it would have put undue stress on the dipped wing and vertical stabilizer, and ripped them off.  Even if the pitot was causing the plane to either underspeed or overspeed, the plane still had no business trying to fly through the most intense part of the storm.  What is more, the pilots should have been able to see what they were flying into from their radar returns.  The basic question remains:  Why did the pilots choose to fly directly into the storm?

It should be mentioned that the Air bus 330 has a service ceiling of slightly less than 39,500 feet, so it could not fly above storms that towered upwards from 51,000 to 56,000 feet.  Also, this plane has never been tested for G-force loading stresses.  G-force loading stress specifications for the Airbus 330 is listed as “unknown”. ..  

Along with the fact, as some have already mentioned, many airline companies do not let their flight crews to deviate off track by more than 10 nautical miles to avoid storms, (unless it is a declared emergency by the captain), as well as Air France’s “deferred maintenance” on replacing the pitot’s, would strongly suggest that Air France is basically at fault for cutting corners that affect safety to stay profitable.  Afterall, airlines have a notorious reputation for wanting to save on expenses and maximize profits, by preferring that their pilots maintain a course that will save on fuel and meet schedules, neverminding the weather conditions or equipment they are given to fly with, if the government regulators are not around requiring them to do otherwise.  Bottomline is:  Not only was Air France flight 447 on autopilot when it approached the storm, but the brains of pilots and Air France corporate headquarters were on autopilot too.   The pre-determined decisions made that lead up to this tragedy could have been avoided!!!

If any of this is true, it’s pretty horrible.

Did Composite Parts Bring Down Air France 447? (And Will the New FAA Do Its Job?)

 In the two weeks since the Air France 447 crash, I’ve written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of  composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail. 

Now, wreckage recoved from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece today in the Christian Science Monitor.

“There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage,” says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. “We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed.”

Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane’s tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

“The tail that broke off was a composite structure and was attached to the aircraft in six places. The bolts [some made of composite materials] holding it into place failed,” he says.

In fact, I’ve quoted other sources who say the turbulence encountered by American Airlines 587 before it crashed was mild compared with what Air France 447 might have met over the equatorial Atlantic. And while the bolts in question had passed safety tests, as have various composite parts, numerous questions have been raised about the methods used in testing new composite parts during the design process, as well as during routine ground testing prior to flights.

Boeing has hung a good part of its future on its new 787 Dreamliner, a midsized passenger jet built from over 50 percent composite materials, by weight. The Dreamliner is about to begin flight testing, and is supposed to be released next year. The lightweight construction of the 787 and other high-composite aircraft promises big savings to airlines in fuel costs. But with even a possibility that composites contributed to the 587 and 447 disasters, more testing and strict federal oversight, at the least, are needed before this new generation of aircraft begins flying.

Is this due diligence likely to happen? Remember that the fortunes of America’s largest aerospace manufacturer are in the mix, and that Boeing has given the 787 a huge buildup: The Dreamliner was supposed to be the highlight of the Paris Air Show, which opens up next week under the twin clouds of global recession and the 447 crash, but Boeing now says its first flight will be delayed. In fact, the plane is well behind schedule, placing Boeing is in competition with Airbus, which is working on its own high-composite jet.

It will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that public safety comes before private profits–not something the FAA has been known for. The last FAA administrator, Marion Blakely, was a fervent freemarketeer who opposed increasing government regulation. She went on to become chief lobbyist for the aerospace industry group. Obama’s appointee, Randy Babbitt, is the former head of the airline pilot’s union, and ought to have some interest in ensuring that planes don’t fall apart in midair.

Does Air France 447 Reveal the Safety Risks of Plastic Aircraft?

It is conceivable that the materials used to construct parts of the Airbus 330 might have been a factor in the loss of Air France 447. While we may never know for sure whether structural issues contributed to the plane’s plunge into the Atlantic, the crash raises urgent questions that reach beyond even the untimely deaths of 228 people: Composite aircraft parts figure more and more in the future of commercial aviation, with the two biggest manufacturers preparing to roll out high-composite-content jets next year.

plane 787These carbon-fiber composites–basically, a form of plastic–are lighter than the aluminum they replace, which stands to cut down significantly on fuel costs. But any weaknesses in parts built of composite may be impossible to detect during routine ground inspections–at least without costly testing methods that the manufacturers insist are unnecessary. 

If critics of the new high-composite-content aircraft are right about their risks, then we may once again be facing a situation where the corporate profits of the aerospace and airline industries are placed before public safety, while the government declines to intervene.

This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories. Warnings about the possible safety risks of composite materials in aircraft construction have been issued by a number of engineers and experts, and by no less reliable a source than the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (CTSB). A 2007 article in the New Scientist discusses a report by the CTSB that reveals problems with composite materials used in the Airbus, and their role in a 2005 midair crisis. Most troubling is the report’s conclusion that such structural problems often remain undetected using current methods of safety testing.

Standard test used to assess the safety of carbon-fibre composite airliners can be dangerously ineffective, according to air-safety investigators in Canada. In a report published on 22 November, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) says an aircraft can pass the “tap test”, even though its composites actually have small flaws.

Tap tests are part of routine servicing. A ground engineer listens for a change of pitch as they tap a composite surface like a tailplane or rudder. This is supposed to reveal gaps where layers of composite have come apart, but the TSB says small gaps can go undetected and later grow.

These gaps can suddenly grow in size and potentially endanger an aircraft, the board says. It is working with the aviation industry’s global International Maintenance Review Board to review the current maintenance procedures.

This report followed a two year investigation into a 300-series Airbus (Air Transat Airbus A310) that had lost most of its rudder on a flight from Varadero, Cuba, to Quebec City in March 2005. The New Scientist describes the harrowing situation on the flight from Cuba:

Following a loud bang that reverberated through the aircraft, the plane was immediately pitched into a “Dutch roll”, in which it repeatedly rolled its wings up and down while simultaneously swinging its tail side to side. By losing altitude, the pilots managed to bring the roll under control and land safely back in Varadero, with the whole episode only causing a minor back injury to one person.

 The weather conditions during this flight were not unusual, so external forces didn’t appear to have been a factor. In trying to figure out what had happened, CTSB investigators focused on structural problems that might have cause the rudder to break apart–and how they could have been missed during pre-takeoff inspections of the aircraft.

They took already damaged composite specimens–some from other A310 rudders–and placed them in a vacuum chamber. The samples experienced pressure changes simulating changing altitude during many simulated flights.

“The areas of the damage almost doubled instantly,” the report says. “The rapid propagation event was explosively loud and violent.” The explosion even damaged their test chamber. The TSB say this explains the loud bang heard by the crew.

The Airbus A310 was the second version of the Airbus to be produced at Toulouse by the French. There have been 548 fatalities in the life of the plane. Accidents suffered by another model, the A300, include devastating crashes in Indonesia and China in the 1990s, and the 2001 crash of an American Airlines jet shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport on its way to the Dominican Republic, which killed all 260 people on board and five on the ground. That crash happened after the plane’s composite tail broke off–but federal investigators concluded that pilot actions, rather than the plane’s materials, triggered that crash. The A330 had no fatalities until this week, though it’s safety record was not flawless.

The implications of such findings are far-reaching, since composite materials are slated to make up a greater portion of some big jets. At around the same time the CTSB report was released, Boeing was touting plans–and taking numerous advance orders–for its new 787 Dreamliner, which is made up of about 50 percent composite materials by weight. As of last month, the Dreamliner was being prepared final testing, with an eye toward release in 2010. The Airbus 380, made up of 25 percent composite, is under construction as well.

In 2007, as construction of the Dreamliner got underway, a Boeing aerospace engineer claimed he was fired after he went public with warning that the composite materials rendered the aircraft unsafe. (Boeing’s records gave other reasons for his dismissal.) According to a report in the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

Forty-six-year veteran Vince Weldon contends that in a crash landing that would be survivable in a metal airplane, the new jet’s innovative composite plastic materials will shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes. He backs up his views with e-mails from engineering colleagues at Boeing and claims the company isn’t doing enough to test the plane’s crashworthiness.

Boeing vigorously denies Weldon’s assertions, saying the questions he raised internally were addressed to the satisfaction of its technical experts….Weldon thinks that without years of further research, Boeing shouldn’t build the Dreamliner and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shouldn’t certify the jet to fly.

 In letters to the Federal Aviation Administration, which Weldon discussed on an interview on Dan Rather’s cable show, he raised several possible risks, including what might happen in a lightening storm. (Lightening is being discussed as one possible reason for the crash of AF 447.) According to the Post-Intelligencer, Weldon warned that:

The conductive metal mesh embedded in the 787’s fuselage surface to conduct away lightning is too light and vulnerable to hail damage, and is little better than a “Band-Aid.” Though aluminum airplanes are safe to fly through lightning storms, Weldon wrote, “I do not have even close to the same level of confidence” for the 787.

 Weldon’s letters to the FAA advocated a more vigorous testing protocol for the 787. Among other things, he urged the government agency to test the plane itself, rather than relying on tests run by Boeing. According to a follow-up piece in the Post-Intelligencer:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rejected suggestions from a former Boeing engineer that it change the testing and certification process proposed to prove the 787 Dreamliner is as safe in a crash landing as current airplanes….

The FAA response said: “We consider it more effective to establish the standards and encourage [Boeing] to develop the most effective method of compliance.”

In addition to demanding testing prior to certification, the FAA could, if it wished, require different kinds of routine ground testing depending on an aircraft’s structural makeup. Reporting on the issue of how composite-built aircraft should be safety-tested, a 2007 piece in the Chicago Tribune discussed the alternatives to “tap test,” which include ultrasounds and other advanced–but costly–technologies. Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers and airlines have resisted instituting these kinds of tests.

There’s growing debate over how aviation maintenance should keep pace with such materials. Federal guidelines for inspecting composites remain vague, in part because high-tech tools for detecting damage are rapidly evolving, and there isn’t yet consensus among researchers or regulators on what should become standard practice, experts say.

Planemakers insist that visual inspections are sufficient for the composites that account for more than 50 percent of the materials, by weight, on Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner and 25 percent of Airbus’ hulking A380 superjumbo jet….

 But while Boeing is “confident that visual inspections will be sufficient for the 787 throughout its lifetime,” the Tribune reports, it is nonetheless “advising its customers to use ultrasounds and other advanced imaging to check for hidden damage when a 787 suffers bumps and bruises typical in airport operations–a wrench dropped on a wing, forexample, or ground equipment nudging a plane’s fuselage.”

In other words, Boeing is confident that their plastic plane is safe for a 5,000-mile flight, even though a wrench dropped on the wing necessitates more sophisticated testing for hidden damage. The apparent backstory here, some critics suggest, is that the better testing methods are also very expensive, and might dissuade some airlines from investing in the Dreamliner and other high-composite-content planes. As the Tribune piece reports:

“Our concern is that competition [between manufacturers] might be driving a more aggressive attitude on operational issues,” said Todd Wissing, an American Airlines pilot who flies Airbus A300-600s, the same model as the plane that crashed shortly after taking off from New York’s Kennedy International Airport in 2001….

“As the price comes down and the equipment becomes more robust, that’s when aircraft manufacturers will be including [advanced testing] in their specifications for aircraft and recommending [it] for customers,” predicted John Newman, president of Laser Technology Inc., a Pennsylvania company whose technology is used by the U.S. military and NASA to find flaws in composites.

So far, the FAA has declined to heed any calls for new testing procedures to be mandated, and other new safety regulations be put into effect before the composite-heavy planes start flying. As of a month ago today, Boeing  reported that it had 886 orders from 57 customers for the half-plastic 787 Dreamliner.

Final assembly of a 787 Dreamliner, made of 50 percent composite materials. Photo: Boeing

Final assembly of a 787 Dreamliner, made of 50 percent composite materials. Photo: Boeing

Notes: Thanks to chromodynamix, whose comment on myUnsilent Generation blog yesterday alerted me to the New Scientist article and the issue of composite materials in aircraft construction.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, with its eye on local corporate giant Boeing, has long provided some of the most complete reporting on the aerospace industry. Let’s hope the staff layoffs and the demise of the paper’s print edition don’t change that.