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Boeing Parts and Rules Bent, Whistle-Blowers Say

For nearly 40 years, Boeing 737 airframes have been built in Wichita. In 2005, Boeing sold the plant to a Canadian company, which does that work under contract.
For nearly 40 years, Boeing 737 airframes have been built in Wichita. In 2005, Boeing sold the plant to a Canadian company, which does that work under contract. (By Dave Williams -- The Wichita Eagle)

One reason the FAA chose not to pursue the whistle-blowers' claims, officials said, was that its engineers believed the parts in question would not present a safety risk even if they failed in flight. There has never been a crash caused by such a failure, the agency said.

But on a number of occasions, the agency has expressed concern about similar parts, albeit on the previous generation of 737s, which Boeing began phasing out in 1996. Last year, prompted by reports from some carriers of cracks, the FAA formally alerted U.S. air carriers that fly the older version of the 737 to inspect for possible fatigue cracks around such parts. Cracks in these areas, the FAA said, "could result in reduced structural integrity of the frames, possible loss of a cargo door, possible rapid decompression of the fuselage."

'We're All Appalled'

For nearly 40 years, the airframe for the Boeing 737 has been assembled in Wichita, loaded on trains, and hauled to the Pacific Northwest to get its wings, tail and engines. Boeing sold the plant in 2005 to a Canadian firm, which still does that work in Wichita under contract.

Prewitt's job at Wichita was to purchase parts for 737s and other jets from Ducommun and other suppliers. She said workers informed her that some pieces were coming in with inaccurate measurements beyond the margin of error. In the summer of 2000, she visited one assembly line where the aluminum ribs, known as chords, were being attached to the 737 fuselage.

As Prewitt watched, she said, one worker pulled a chord from the stack and saw its holes were in the wrong place. "I said, 'So what do you do?' She grabbed a drill and drills a hole and connects it together," said Prewitt, now 45. "We're all appalled. I sat there watching her drill, drill, drill."

She said the chord problem reinforced worries that others had raised for a year about other Ducommun parts. She had examined reports of problems with "bear straps," large pieces of reinforcing sheet metal bonded to the skin around an airliner's doorways. Prewitt said the pieces, which have four jutting corners something like a bearskin rug, were coming in short in one corner. That forced workers to drill holes for rivets closer to the edge of the piece than specified.

The whistle-blowers said they learned that some managers knew of the problem but encouraged workers to make the parts fit. For example, when Prewitt recommended tossing out 24 bear straps she considered unacceptable, a Boeing procurement manager objected. "Scrapping any bearstraps is stupid, since we've used over 300 with the same condition," the manager wrote a whistle-blower in a May 13, 1999, e-mail reviewed by The Post.

Boeing's corporate audit office convened a team to look into the parts problems in 2000. The 14 members included Prewitt and two others who later would join the whistle-blower lawsuit -- Taylor Smith, 44, contract administrator for the new generation of 737s and other jets; and James Ailes, 53, a technical troubleshooter. Others were experts on quality assurance, tooling and manufacturing processes.

The team visited Ducommun's Gardena, Calif., plant. In its report to Boeing, the team said it found that many of the more than 500 heavy-duty manufacturing tools used by Ducommun were incorrectly calibrated, misused or not built to Boeing's specifications. Contrary to Ducommun's factory records, the report said, the supplier still was making parts with hand tools such as routers, as it had done for the older 737 models, instead of the sophisticated computer-programmed tools Boeing engineers had specified.

Ducommun, also named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the allegations beyond stating that the FAA and other agencies had already dismissed them.

The Boeing audit team issued its report in August 2000. Among other things, it noted that Boeing was seeking financial compensation for irregularities at Ducommun's plant and was reconsidering its relationship with the supplier.

Ducommun's statement said it never made a payment to Boeing as a financial settlement, but according to documents reviewed by The Post, the company agreed in January 2001 to a $1.6 million settlement with Boeing for overbilling and manufacturing problems. Boeing declined to comment.

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