FAA in no hurry to warn airlines about suspect cable

Company failed to test product, worker alleges

June 18, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - In January 1999, a former employee of an upstate New York company that makes steel cable for the control systems of passenger jetliners and military aircraft approached federal prosecutors with a startling story.

The company, she said, had sold the cable for years without performing the tests required by its most demanding customer, the U.S. military, and did not even own the equipment needed to detect flaws in its product.

The accusations were potentially serious. Models of many widely used airplanes, including the Boeing 737, use steel cable to connect cockpit controls to the engines, landing gear, rudder and wing surfaces. The company's customers included the U.S. Air Force and more than a dozen U.S. and foreign airlines, and the company had been selling cable for years.

Federal criminal investigators quickly verified the outlines of the former employee's account. They immediately notified the Department of Defense, and the Federal Aviation Administration learned of the possible danger soon after.

But the responses were starkly different.

Military officials immediately tested samples of the cable, found that they began to break at barely half the load they were supposed to support, and started inspections of all aircraft equipped with it. In August 1999, Air Force mechanics replaced cable linked to the engine controls of a backup plane for Air Force Two, which is used by Vice President Al Gore.

The FAA, by contrast, did no tests and did not inform the airlines about the possible problems for nearly a year, during which several carriers continued to use cable sold by Strandflex, the upstate company.

The aviation agency finally published a notice about the issue last month, a day after a New York Times reporter raised questions about the case. The agency said the timing was coincidental.

The notification was merely a warning, and it did not require airlines to act. But soon after, American carriers, including Southwest and Trans World Airlines, began an inspection of all Strandflex cable. Southwest has begun removing it from 47 aircraft, roughly 15 percent of its fleet.

Strandflex has not been charged with wrongdoing. In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it has acknowledged that it is the target of a criminal investigation and has said it intends to fight a civil lawsuit brought by the former employee, who stands to receive a percentage of any damages the government might recover.

The company would not comment further about the matter.

Government officials have reviewed records of accidents and say there is no evidence of any major accidents caused by cable failures.

Reports at the National Transportation Safety Board, though, include incidents in recent years in which broken or frayed cables forced pilots to take action to land planes safely. The board has attributed the failures to poor maintenance and has not investigated who made the cable involved in the incidents.

Those reports appear to support what several aviation experts said in interviews: that a well-trained pilot should, by using other controls, be able to compensate for the failure of a single control system tied to the cables.

The experts noted that planes typically have backups, so that a pilot can steer even if a cable snaps. Still, experts said, they could imagine situations in which snapped cables could seriously challenge a pilot.

In interviews over the past month, the FAA offered conflicting explanations of why it had taken nearly a year to tell the airlines about the cable. First, officials said there was no evidence that the cable had been sold to airlines. Then they acknowledged that it had been sold to at least several major carriers, but they said it was not a critical component. Its failure, the officials asserted, could not cause an accident.

The FAA's views startled several aviation experts, including Michael Peat, a safety specialist at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who said control cables were among the most critical parts of an aircraft.

"These are what are considered the primary flight controls of the airplane," he said.

Critical components like control cables, Peat noted, are subject to special inspection requirements. The mechanic who installs or services the cable cannot review the work; another mechanic or an inspector must do it.

The airlines regularly inspect the cables, Peat said, and when they are installed workers check them thoroughly. But he said they do not typically perform the tests to certify that the cables were correctly made. That is the manufacturer's responsibility, he said.

In May 1999, the Department of Defense issued a warning about Strandflex cable that it sent to other federal agencies. Federal prosecutors said the FAA was one of the agencies notified.

Once the Air Force received the notice, it began to inspect its planes, according to Maj. Chet Curtis, an Air Force spokesman.

Margaret Gilligan, the FAA deputy administrator for regulation and certification, said agency officials did not learn of the problem until August 1999.

Gilligan said that in September 1999, the agency sent an investigator to Syracuse to evaluate the importance of the cable and make recommendations.

The FAA initially concluded that the cable was a critical part, assigning the case its highest level of urgency. But Gilligan said in a recent interview that the conclusion changed after the investigator learned more about the cable and its function.

Gilligan said the reason the FAA took several months to post the notice was that the agency wanted to make sure it had all the information, including the Department of Defense test results, before acting.

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