The Wall Street Journal reports today that European safety regulators have ordered frequent and extensive testing on the composite rudders of Airbus A300/310 series jets due to safety concerns.
The rudders of about 420 older Airbus jetliners are being subjected to repetitive ultrasonic and other enhanced inspections, the first time airlines and safety regulators have resorted to such recurring, high-tech procedures to determine the integrity of composite parts on airliners already in service.
The stepped-up inspection program, recommended by Airbus months ago and then reaffirmed by the European Aviation Safety Agency through a mandatory directive, calls for the first enhanced rudder checks to be completed within six months or 500 flights. Some inspections on certain planes must be repeated every 1,400 flights, a relatively short compliance schedule for checking structural integrity of primary flight structures.
The enhanced inspections, including ultrasound, X-rays and other techniques, stem from a March 2005 incident in which an Air Transat Airbus A310 suddenly lost its rudder over the Caribbean while flying from Cuba to Quebec. There were no injuries, and the plane returned safely to Cuba. But as a result, the plane's manufacturer, Canadian air-safety investigators and European regulators began investigating what, if any, additional inspection requirements were necessary to safeguard the integrity of such rudders used on early model Airbus aircraft.
While the changes primarily affect a relatively small number of older twin-engine A300s and A310s, they nevertheless represent a significant break from longstanding Airbus-developed maintenance standards for composite materials. Before the incident, Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., and European regulators maintained that simple visual inspections, combined with a mechanic's manually tapping on the surface of the composite rudders, were adequate to detect any potentially hazardous internal flaws or structural weaknesses.
But now for the first time, high-tech inspections methods are being required -- and must be repeated during the life of a what Airbus described as a "limited number" of Airbus jets -- to assure long-term rudder integrity. A spokesman for Airbus U.S. operations said only a small number of affected aircraft are flown by U.S. carriers. Spokesman Clay McConnell said about 400 A300 and A310 aircraft are covered by the added inspections, along with 20 wide-body Airbus A330 and A340 jetliners. Mr. McConnell said Airbus changed its rudder-manufacturing process before the 2005 incident.
The Star-Telegram reported on this issue a year ago (Nov. 12, 2006) because of the potential that it could be related to the 2001 fatal crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York:
Five years after an American Airlines jet crashed in New York City and killed all 260 passengers and crew members, questions linger about whether the type of plane involved has flaws that could imperil other flights.
An investigation concluded that the crash of Flight 587, on Nov. 12, 2001, in a Belle Harbor neighborhood, was largely due to pilot error. The co-pilot made overly aggressive attempts to steer the Airbus A300 as it bounced from side to side in turbulence created by another jet that had taken off ahead of it.
The pilot’s actions put so much stress on the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer, or tail fin, that it was torn off, fatally crippling the wide-body jet, the National Transportation Safety Board said in its final report. For a pilot to break the airplane’s structure in flight was unprecedented, the NTSB said.
But to this day, American, a group of its pilots who flew the jets and other observers contend that the safety board and its investigators rushed to blame the pilot and gave short shrift to evidence that pointed to potential flaws with the Airbus rudder controls or even a structural defect.
"I think there are a large number of troubling, unanswered questions" regarding the A300, said Michael Slack, an Austin attorney and former aerospace engineer. Slack represents the families of Flight 587 victims in liability lawsuits and has examined documents and questioned witnesses from American and Airbus.
Recently, new incidents involving damage to A300 tails and rudders have called into question the safety and reliability of the Airbus plane. They’ve also reinforced concerns about the growing use of carbon-fiber composite materials in manufacturing commercial airplanes.