Saturday, July 22, 2006


NASA still doesn’t get it. After spending a billion dollars to get the Space Shuttle main fuel tank again ready for flight, the foam still cracks, still falls off and still creates an unreasonable risk of death to the crew.

NASA’s much touted management culture change, designed to fix for the third time its culture of non-safety, failed once again. Two senior engineers recommended against launch because of the still unsolved foam problem, and their protests were disregarded. That is exactly what NASA did that resulted in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Let’s see -- $1 Billion, fifteen scheduled launches, that comes to $66,000,000 per tank. If we can’t build a safe throw away fuel tank for $66,000,000 per copy, then maybe we ought to outsource it to China or even North Korea.

The continuing failure of NASA to address this problem effectively is a blight on them, our space program, and our future in space.

It is impossible to see a crack in the skin in the Shuttle unless the crack is a hole and it’s huge. Without running one’s hand without a space suit over every inch of the leading edge, it will be unlikely and more like impossible to know a crack has been caused by rapidly accelerating foam on lift off. Therefore, the current system of using the remote arm with a camera to look over the wing is interesting, but ineffective.

NASA is needlessly risking lives because it cannot seem to get it right. Hopefully it will be lucky, even if it isn’t smart.

If I were an astronaut, I’d buy a lot of life insurance.

July 2006

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Ten years after TWA 800 exploded over Long Island killing all aboard and thirty two years after its sister ship exploded over Madrid killing all aboard, the FAA still has no rule in place to require inerting of transport aircraft fuel tanks. The FAA claims only four aircraft will explode from this cause in the next fifty years. That’s an interesting statistic given that no less than 18 and probably more have exploded in the thirty five years since jet transports have taken over the skies.

While some manufacturers like Boeing whose airplanes have done the exploding say they will inert tanks of all new airplanes, Airbus says it will only do so if required because its airplanes haven’t exploded yet.

The original fuel tank engineering philosophy was to prevent explosions by keeping sparks away from inside partially filled tanks. That was honored more in the breach since fuel quantity sending units, electrical wires and fuel pumps were inside the tanks. How the manufacturers intended to meet the requirement to avoid sparks is inexplicable.

When the sister ship to TWA 800, then in the Iranian Air Force, blew up on approach to Madrid in 1974, the cause was assigned to a lightning strike on the near empty fuel tanks.

Then when the inquiry was over for that crash an industry task force was assembled to discuss the ways fuel tank explosions could be avoided in large aircraft fuel tanks. Nothing ever came of it but the military by that time was already providing fuel tank inerting in aircraft that could be hit by incendiary rounds to prevent explosions. In fact a military DC-9 was equipped with a nitrogen inerting system even before the Madrid crash and it worked well and was cheap and uncomplicated to install. Other military aircraft such as the C-17 actually manufacture nitrogen in flight and it is then used to inert its fuel tanks as the fuel is consumed.

Since TWA 800 a number of FAA Airworthiness Directives have been issued to tidy up the electrical issues in the tanks but they by design still remain dangerous. A cartoon published soon after TWA 800 showed a charicature of Grandma Moses rocking in her chair with the balloon saying: “Why would anyone route wires through the middle of a fuel tank anyway?” Common sense would have dictated that no wiring of any kind be allowed in the tank even if the regulations didn’t already imply that.

So the design philosophy changed to now require that the space between the fuel and the top of the tank be inerted so it won’t explode. Industry was asked to come up with proposals and they did much like they did thirty years earlier. None have been implemented so the risk remains.

What is even more indefensible is that there were immediate steps that could have been taken and some were and most were not to prevent explosions in the short term. Carrying more than a few gallons of fuel in large fuel tanks was no longer permitted in the hope that dangerous fuel molecule concentrations would not occur. Limiting the use of air conditioning packs on the ground that use the center tank fuel as a heat sink was discouraged to avoid temperatures in tanks getting to the lower explosive limit.

But use of cabin air that is sent overboard and routing it through the tanks instead so as to make the fuel air mixture too lean to explode was not required. That would have been cheap, expedient and worked in the short term before a more effective solution was engineered.

Thus after more than thirty years the risk is just as high that an aircraft the size of a Boeing 747 will explode killing all aboard for the very same reason that TWA 800 and the sister ship did, a bad fuel tank design coupled with inadequate inerting of the vapors in the tank.

What excuse will the FAA and industry give us the next time hundreds of families suffer the needless loss of their loved ones? None will suffice. None did suffice. None should suffice. The victims of TWA 800 should not have died in vain.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


A recent NTSB Safety Recommendation should be of great concern to aircraft manufacturers, airlines and their passengers. It concerns the “disbonding” of the composite rudders on some A300 Airbus airliners. It seems hydraulic fluid delaminates the bonding agent and allows the plies of composite material to separate. The danger is that strength of the composite structure is compromised, such that it is no longer useful as an aircraft structure and can result in a catastrophic separation in flight.

Everyone loves composites these days. Why? Because they are light, rigid, strong and increasingly easy to build. They are stronger than their steel and aluminum counterparts and are infinitely lighter. Aircraft manufacturers, ever mindful of the needs of their airline customers, especially fuel costs, are trying to make structures lighter so less power and less fuel will carry the same number of passengers less expensively. Also, since large composite panels can now be made efficiently, small aluminum panels can be substituted with huge sheets of composite structure, cutting manufacturing costs and the price of the finished aircraft.

The rush to larger and more complex structures, however, must be tempered with the very high risk of in flight break-up and a deadly crash caused by unforeseen structural failure or disbonding from the ever present leakage of hydraulic fluid from the myriad of hydraulically operated systems in aircraft, like landing gear, flaps and flight controls. These systems, operating at thousands of pounds per square inch pressure, leak frequently, and a leak where fluid accumulates and remains for long periods can be deadly.

What’s needed is a substitute for the highly toxic, corrosive and composite destroying hydraulic fluid now in use, one that will not disbond composite structures. If this step is not taken at once, we are asking for trouble -- and it will be big trouble. New aircraft are increasingly large, carrying more and more people. An Airbus 380 carrying 800 people cannot shed a major structure with impunity. Already the wing failed a critical ultimate load test, and the less than optimal results were double talked away by engineers. No amount of double talk will adequately explain to hundreds of families the industry’s failure in the face of this knowledge to make absolutely certain that hydraulic fluid doesn’t cause an airplane to crash.

Hopefully, and I am not optimistic, the pressures of competition will cause aircraft manufacturers in both hemispheres to address this deadly problem. They have been forewarned!

March 2006

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Integrity in Government? – How the Party System Has Run Amuck at the NTSB

Few outside the air crash litigation world know how the party system at the NTSB works. When an airplane crash happens, it isn’t just the NTSB investigator-in-charge who goes to the scene to investigate. Under NTSB rules, manufacturers’ accident investigators are invited as parties to the investigation.

Thanks to former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, a Rand Report indicted this procedure as allowing aircraft manufacturers who had litigation in mind to be the fox guarding the henhouse by influencing the accident investigation away from failures in their components. This is the reason that pilot error is virtually always the cause assigned by the NTSB for an accident.

Well, in spite of good public money having been spent on the Rand study and the lessons that were supposed to be learned from it, the NTSB has taken the justly criticized party system a step further. The NTSB now permits the manufacturers of aircraft, whose accidents it investigates, to pass on promotions of NTSB air safety investigators to senior air safety investigator status. That’s right, in order to get a promotion at the NTSB, to advance in one’s career and receive more money and stature, the promotion hinges on approval from the people investigated. Put another way, if an investigator regularly finds a defect caused an aircraft accident instead of pilot error, he has essentially no chance of promotion.

This has caused a furor among air safety investigators at the NTSB, some of whom who refuse to play ball with the manufacturers’ attempts to place the blame for every accident on the dead pilot. Unfortunately, what these guys don’t know is that the system is fixed against them. Compared to the aircraft manufacturers the air safety investigators are powerless
Not to worry! Nobody in the air crash litigation profession relies on the NTSB reports. We do our own investigation, which is more thorough and we know more about these airplanes and why they crash than anyone at the NTSB, so good does triumph over evil most of the time.

What is sad, however, is that the good guys who want to do the “independent” air crash investigation work that the “Independent Safety Board Act” was designed by Congress to accomplish are frustrated that their zeal to be independent is frustrated by a good ole boy network of Government and industry that stacks the deck against them.

So much for the promised return to integrity in Government!

February 20, 2006