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Crash Raises Concerns About Older Planes

May 14, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The crash of a 27-year-old ValuJet airliner in the Florida everglades is focusing attention on the nation’s aging fleet of planes, aircraft that need more rigorous and costly inspections to keep running safely.

Technicians regularly check for telltale signs of wear _ corrosion around windows or cracks in bulkheads subject to pressure _ and from time to time strip a plane down to bare wings and body.

``What you look for in an aging aircraft are corrosion and other manifestations of age. It’s a piece of machinery after all,″ Federal Aviation Administrator David R. Hinson said.

``As a plane gets older we look at it more often, we X-ray it more often, we do metallurgy tests more often,″ Hinson said. ``We have programs in place to ensure that planes are safe in service.″

``The issue of aging aircraft has been a concern for some time,″ said Girard Steichen of the private Flight Safety Foundation.

``If it’s been properly maintained and inspected, it’s a safe aircraft to fly,″ Steichen said, echoing federal regulators and others in the industry.

Yet questions persist.

``I have some concerns ... the airplanes are old and are noticeably old,″ aviation consultant David Stempler said of ValuJet. Yet he added that he has flown on the airline.

Stempler said inspectors watch for a variety of types of corrosion: pitting in the aluminum parts or bubbling as though the metal had been in acid.

Close attention is paid to any area that may be exposed to water, such as wheel wells, he said.

``It does take special inspection activity in order to really adequately inspect the aircraft as they get older,″ said Stan Mackiewicz, executive director of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association.

It was a 1988 accident involving Aloha Airlines that ``really brought the issue to the forefront,″ Mackiewicz said.

On April 28, 1988, the roof over the first class section of a 19-year-old Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suddenly peeled open. A flight attendant was killed and 61 passengers were injured, though the plane landed safely.

Investigators determined that corrosion, increased by operation in the salty atmosphere over the ocean, was a factor in that accident.

Today planes over age 15 must have additional inspections.

That includes a growing share of the airline fleet, according to figures compiled by Best Associates and reported by USA Today.

That study found that the average U.S. commercial jetliner was 14 years old in 1995, compared with 11.5 years in 1985 and 7.1 years in 1975.

Some of those inspections nearly result in the disassembly of the craft.

``We literally took the airplane apart,″ an airline maintenance technician who spoke on condition of anonymity said of a recent overhaul of an older airliner.

``We took off all the control surfaces, the engines, the seats and cabin interior,″ he said, so technicians could look in every nook and cranny.

The operators of each type of aircraft share their experience with each other, the technician said, so that each is aware of problems other carriers find as their machinery ages.

That way maintenance programs can be developed for each type of plane looking for specific problem areas.

``They know where to look,″ he said. For example, in the Boeing 747 it’s corrosion in the plane’s upper deck, while workers on the Lockheed L-1011 watch for problems around the cockpit windows.

The technician said special maintenance checks for older planes include corrosion prevention and structural systems checks, adding ``the FAA is all over that like you wouldn’t believe.″

The age of the nation’s airliner fleet has been increasing in recent years. A slow economy has discouraged new buys, while many start-up airlines create a market for older equipment from companies closing down like Eastern and Pan Am.

``If you are looking at a DC-9 that’s 27 years old, if it’s been properly maintained and inspected it’s a safe aircraft to fly,″ Steichen said. ``The (Boeing) 737 for example, may be the most widely used aircraft in the world by airlines and a lot of these date back to the 1960s.″

ValuJet has been a major buyer in used plane market. It was one of that carrier’s DC-9s, built in 1969, that crashed in Florida’s Everglades on Saturday with 109 people aboard.

Yet, Mackiewicz said, ``there are aircraft in operation that are significantly older than the ValuJet aircraft. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on them, provided they were maintained in accordance with the FAA.″

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