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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/19/09

Ground the Airbus?

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The essence of designing and constructing a heavier-than-air flying machine is to make it as light and strong as possible. Although the initial cost of using plastic is higher than metal, the expense is offset over the long haul by lower fuel costs. Allan McArtor, Chairman of Airbus North America, said "Composites save weight, saving weight saves fuel, and saving fuel is better for the environment and for our customer’s bottom lines." [7]

Starting in 1974, Airbus used plastic materials in its new A300 series aircraft, but only in secondary areas such as the leading edges of the tail fin. The A310 series introduced in 1978 featured a composite tail fin box, along with a number of additional applications. [8]

Ten years later, in 1988, Airbus began delivery of the A320 with an all composite tail fin, and construction of vertical stabilizers from plastic composites became the standard for all its aircraft. [9]

The vast majority of all commercial aircraft ever manufactured by Airbus remain in service, most of which are equipped with plastic tail fins, rudders and couplers.

Almost 25 percent of the new Airbus A380, which can seat more than 800 passengers on two decks, is constructed of composite materials. For the first time, the wings of the aircraft are stabilized and attached to the fuselage using a composite center wing-box, and the plane is equipped with a plastic vertical stabilizer that is almost 79 feet in length, nearly the height of an eight-story building. [10]

The A380 is already being flown in commercial service by several airlines, including Singapore and Qantas on trans-Pacific trips.

Missed Opportunities to Avoid Air France Flight 447 Disaster

A series of in-flight emergency incidents and fatal crashes extending back 12 years provide a clear record of missed opportunities to correct what increasingly appears to be a basic design error in Airbus commercial aircraft that may have caused the crash of Air France Flight 447.

May 12, 1997 - Aboard American Airlines Flight 903 Over Miami, Florida. Following an uneventful flight from Boston, the pilots of an Airbus A300-600 carrying 156 people were preparing to land at the Miami airport, when they were advised to go into a holding pattern due to an approaching thunderstorm. [11]At an altitude of 16,000 feet, the plane suddenly stalled and the "plane rolled to extreme bank angles left and right, and the rudder was moved rapidly back and forth to its in-flight limits. During the event, the airplane was stalled several times and rapidly descended more than 3,000 feet." [12]

Melanie Joison was sitting with her two children holding her 18-month old daughter in her lap. The child flew from her lap back over three rows of seats where she was caught by another passenger. Ms. Joison suffered five broken ribs. [13]

The pilots declared an emergency, regained control of the aircraft and safely landed. Following a visual inspection in Miami, the plane was flown to New York where a further inspection cleared the plane to be returned to service. [14]

The incident was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) because a passenger was injured. Although Airbus did not have access to the flight data recorder, it expressed a concern that an urgent inspection was needed because the plane could have reached "ultimate load" the point where force is near the breaking point. [15]

The plane received a more thorough inspection on June 26, 1997 by maintenance crews, who removed the covering over the base of the tail fin and inspected the six lugs that attach the tail to the fuselage. They did not remove the tail and examine the area covered by the fitting attached to the fuselage, and the plane was returned to service. [16]

The NTSB determined that the incident was caused by the flight crew failing to maintain adequate speed to prevent a stall. It did "not mention the rudder reversals or the fact that the tail nearly separated from the plane." [17]

The plane continued in service for almost five years until after the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 (see below), when an examination of the flight data recorder revealed that the rudder had exceeded its design limit four times in the 1997 incident "during a rapid airspeed change accompanied by rudder inputs." [18]

Although the Flight 903 pilot made nine rudder reversals during a high rate of speed, which subjected the plane to substantial aerodynamic forces, neither the engines nor tail fin fell off. A subsequent inspection revealed that survival of the craft may have been an engineering miracle. [19]

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William John Cox authored the Policy Manual of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Role of the Police in America for a National Advisory Commission during the Nixon administration. As a public interest, pro bono, attorney, he filed a class action lawsuit in 1979 petitioning the Supreme Court to order a National Policy Referendum; he investigated and successfully sued a group of radical (more...)
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