UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

June 13, 2009

NEW PLANE MATERIALS REMAIN SUSPECT IN 447 CRASH

James Ridgeway, Unsilent Generation - I've written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail.

Now, wreckage recovered from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor.

"There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage," says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. "We need to know if some of the composite parts failed, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed."

Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane's tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

"The tail that broke off was a composite structure and was attached to the aircraft in six places. The bolts [some made of composite materials] holding it into place failed," he says. . .

Boeing has hung a good part of its future on its new 787 Dreamliner, a midsized passenger jet built from over 50 percent composite materials, by weight. The Dreamliner is about to begin flight testing, and is supposed to be released next year. The lightweight construction of the 787 and other high-composite aircraft promises big savings to airlines in fuel costs. But with even a possibility that composites contributed to the 587 and 447 disasters, more testing and strict federal oversight, at the least, are needed before this new generation of aircraft begins flying. . .

The Dreamliner was supposed to be the highlight of the Paris Air Show, which opens up next week under the twin clouds of global recession and the 447 crash, but Boeing now says its first flight will be delayed. In fact, the plane is well behind schedule, placing Boeing is in competition with Airbus, which is working on its own high-composite jet.

It will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that public safety comes before private profits–not something the FAA has been known for.

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