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Pilots Ask for Airbus A300 Grounding

  • Friday, 25th January 2002
  • Reading time: about 3 minutes

Dozens of American Airlines pilots want the company to ground its fleet of Airbus A300 jets until investigators determine why Flight 587 crashed in New York City last November.

The pilots say there is no way adequately to inspect the European-made planes’ tails, which are made of a nonmetallic composite material. “They have very little confidence in the industry-accepted standard of visual inspections alone,” said Robert Sproc, an American pilot for 11 years and Miami vice chairman of the Allied Pilots Association.

After the crash, which killed 265 people, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered visual inspections of the Airbus tails. The FAA has not ordered American to stop flying the planes. Airbus Industrie, the plane’s French-based manufacturer, said there is no need to look for hidden damage because tests have shown that any problems that cannot be seen are not severe enough to weaken the tail.

John Lauber, Airbus’ vice president of safety and technical affairs, said the design and tests of the tail took into account that they would not be inspected for hidden flaws. In a statement, American Airlines said it sees no need to stop flying the Airbus. “Nothing in the examination of the Airbus fleet, or in the tests conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, by American Airlines or by other Airbus operators, suggests that there is a need to ground this fleet,” the airline said.

The NTSB is investigating the Nov. 12 crash of an Airbus A300-600 plane near Kennedy Airport, in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens. The tail fell off before the plane crashed, and investigators want to know why. NTSB investigators reported this month that layers of the tail had peeled away. They said they did not know whether the problem contributed to the crash or occurred after the tail hit the ground.

What bothers some American pilots is that there may have been some damage that visual inspections didn’t find. There are no procedures for using ultrasound or another method to look inside the composite material of the tail section. Former NTSB investigator Greg Feith said a way should be found to inspect the tail for hidden flaws. “When they designed that airplane and designed that tail, they should have designed the ability to do an inspection,” Feith said. “If it’s weakened in any way, that’s going to fail just like any material.” More than 70 pilots have signed onto the following statement, which is being distributed by e-mail:

“Until a definitive cause for the crash of Flight 587 can be determined, along with ways to prevent a similar occurrence, and/or a definitive test can be developed to truly check the structural integrity of the vertical stabilizers of our remaining 34 A300s, I recommend that American Airlines’ fleet of A300s be grounded.”

The pilots who drafted the statement had planned to send it to American, but the company obtained a copy and responded before receiving it. American then invited some of the pilots to spend the day Thursday at American’s Airbus maintenance base in Tulsa, Okla., to see how the planes are maintained and inspected.

Airbus’ Lauber said other examinations are unneeded. “If damage is not visible, then we know it does not affect the strength of the material, and it will not grow during the service life of the airplane,” he said. “A visual inspection will be adequate to find any anomaly that would be of concern.”

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