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Pilot Contends Boeing 727s Suffer Design Defect

May 3, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former Trans World Airlines pilot claims the airline covered up a design defect in a Boeing 727 aircraft in 1977, two years before he averted a near- crash by pulling the same plane out of a five-mile plunge.

Retired Capt. H.G. ″Hoot″ Gibson asked the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday to reopen its investigation of why TWA Flight 841 dropped to within 10,000 feet of the ground in 1979. The board had no immediate response.

The NTSB’s chief investigator found at the time there was no evidence of mechanical malfunction and determined that pilot error was the major cause.

But Gibson and his attorney, Landon Dowdey, contend new evidence supports their belief that a malfunctioning auto-pilot caused the incident and continues to a pose a safety risk to all Boeing 727s.

″This is a coverup to take the public’s attention away from a serious problem with one of the most used airplanes in the world today,″ Dowdey told reporters.

″A lot of people who fly the airplane aren’t aware of the problem,″ said Gibson, a commercial pilot for 26 years who continued to fly for TWA until retiring in 1989.

″I think if something isn’t done there’s a good chance someone could get killed by this,″ said Gibson, 56, who lives in Costa Rica.

There is ″a major design defect in the Boeing 727 auto-pilot mechanism which sometimes makes it impossible for the crew to disconnect it and regain human control of the aircraft,″ he said in his petition.

In a statement from its Seattle headquarters, the Boeing Co. said it has reviewed the design and operation of the 727 auto-pilot system and ″did not find anything to relate the auto-pilot to the 1979 Flight 841 incident.

″Operational experience over 27 years combined with our recent re- examination of the system confirms that the system functions as designed,″ the statement said.

TWA ″has no comment at this time,″ said Jim Faulkner, an airline spokesman.

Flight 841, en route to Minneapolis from New York in April 1979, dropped more than five miles before it was brought out of a spiral near Saginaw, Mich.

It made an emergency landing in Detroit and no one was injured.

In a petition to the NTSB last month, the Air Line Pilots Association outlined nine similar instances in which Boeing 727s had become uncontrollable since 1977, including a 1977 test flight involving TWA executives on the same plane that Gibson was piloting during the 1979 mishap.

Gibson said the 1977 incident ″was never reported and was kept secret throughout the present, long and controversial investigation of a similar control problem with the same airplane.″

Dowdey said TWA and Boeing officials should have notified the NTSB of the 1977 incident during the investigation of Gibson’s Flight 841.

″We know there were a lot of TWA executives on that plane (in 1977). These are the same executives who were involved in the investigation,″ he said.

Boeing ended 727 production in 1984, after delivering 1,831 of the jetliners.

NTSB spokesman Brent Bahler said board officials could not comment on the new petition because the related petition from the pilots’ association is pending before the panel.

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