Engine inspection may be a weak link in US air-safety chain. Testimony suggests less-than-rigorous adherence to FAA rules
Last September a Midwest Express twin-engine DC-9 airliner had just taken off from an airport in Milwaukee when it suddenly lost power in its right engine and 16 seconds later crashed, killing the 31 people on board. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board held public hearings where investigators questioned experts on possible causes of the crash. The plane should have flown with one engine. Pilot error was discussed. An investigation into the cause is still under way.Skip to next paragraph
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But other testimony disclosed potential problems with FAA inspections that could, if not corrected, have serious implications for air safety across the nation.
Specifically, the quality, depth, and frequency of FAA maintenance inspection at the jet-engine repair shop where the failed engine was overhauled were questioned. That overhaul occurred in October 1981 at a Miami jet-engine repair station called AeroThrust Inc. The engine failed on Sept. 6, 1985.
The investigators also probed a private, independent review of AeroThrust by engine builder Pratt & Whitney. P&W inspector Bruce N. Bailliff gave investigators a broad perspective on numerous so-called non-safety violations of FAA regulations the P&W review found there.
Mr. Bailliff told investigators that if the FAA strictly enforced its own regulations, there would be enough violations found at any repair facility to close it. Despite a number of minor violations, he added, AeroThrust was the best shop he had ever reviewed.
Such a kudo prompts a question: If numerous violations existed at AeroThrust, and it is one of the best jet repair shops around, how good is the FAA at inspecting and determining compliance at lesser jet repair shops?
Testimony shows inconsistencies and inadequacies in FAA inspection at AeroThrust before, during, and after October 1981. It shows:
An apparent failure of FAA inspectors to conduct regular annual in-depth inspections of AeroThrust Inc., with a two year gap between November 2, 1979 and November 5, 1981 showing no record of inspection.
An apparent failure by FAA inspectors to ascertain the qualifications of personnel operating certain test equipment at the facility as regulations require.
Testimony shows FAA inspectors did not require them to have paper credentials -- in addition to their on-the-job training -- certifying an ability to detect cracks, corrosion, and metal fatique in jet-engine parts.
An apparent failure of FAA inspectors to ensure that equipment and tools within the facility were calibrated to FAA specifications.
Tool calibration is one of the little things that engine builder Pratt & Whitney has checked in its 72 shop reviews of jet-engine overhaul facilities since 1977. Mr. Bailliff was personally involved in at least 12 such inspections.
Said Bailliff: ``I don't believe that in the past five years I've looked at a single shop that would survive close scrutiny by the FAA [if measured against FAA regulations], particularly in the area of calibration of instruments.''
How serious are such ``nonsafety'' related violations? Asked if such lesser violations, if longstanding, could lead to problems with safety, Bailliff said, ``I think that practically anything could have a potential long-term impact.''
The problem is that under deregulation many jet-engine repair stations are doing more business than they ever have. Many smaller air carriers can't afford their own engine repair facilities. It could be argued that an even higher standard of FAA inspection becomes critical.
Engine failures, though not extremely rare, are still considered an unusual and serious malfunction whose cause varies. Today's multi-engine jet airliners are certified able to fly with one failed engine -- even on take off.
Yet, identifying and dealing with the causes of engine failure are important. Much of that task is up to the engine manufacturer, and to airlines that are required to follow the FAA's rigorous maintenance code.
Ultimately, though, it is the FAA that is responsible for analyzing known hazards, identifying them as safety issues, and following through with inspections of jet-engine repair shops in addition to inspecting other critical airline services.
Testimony in the hearing shows that the regional FAA office in Miami was allowed to set its own inspection agenda. Aerothrust was considered a ``low priority.''
Though inspectors apparently visited AeroThrust several times -- perhaps even frequently over the years -- there are no records to show any inspections over a 2-year period.
There was also a failure to enforce such regulations requiring written training certification.
Anthony J. Broderick, associate administrator for aviation standards in Washington, says the FAA has taken positive action to ensure that jet-engine repair facilities comply with regulations.