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Boeing Parts and Rules Bent, Whistle-Blowers Say
In the summer of 2004, the FAA closed its two-year probe, saying Ducommun's current manufacturing processes were sound. "The most important thing is corrective action," said Peggy Gilligan, deputy associate administrator for aviation safety at the FAA.
Last year, the FAA reopened the case. The agency had received new reports about the parts from two FAA-certified experts hired by the whistle-blowers' lawyers.
The lawyers had provided four experts with the court documents and Boeing quality control reports from 1999 and 2000. All four experts, who are certified by the FAA to make decisions about aircraft engineering or airworthiness on behalf of the agency, and one additional expert hired by The Post to review the same documents said they believed that practices at Ducommun and Boeing were seriously flawed.
One of the whistle-blowers' experts wrote in his report that the documents "demonstrate systemic manufacturing control and quality problems" and that "from an engineering standpoint the safety of each Ducommun part has to be doubted." The expert said he could not judge how the parts might affect the jets' airworthiness.
His comments were consistent with those of all the whistle-blowers' experts, whose reports were supplied to The Post on condition that the authors not be named before a trial.
The evidence that Boeing and Ducommun ignored quality controls is "beyond the scope of anything I've ever heard of -- where an entire inspection system would be bypassed," said Sammy K. Hanson, the consultant hired by The Post. Hanson, who has worked in aircraft certification for 12 years, said that because the FAA acknowledges that it did not look at parts installed on planes, "every one of these parts [in the lawsuit] is 'unapproved.' "
Other aviation experts said that even if FAA procedures were violated, metal parts used for reinforcement are not as critical as, say, the main landing gear.
"Sheet metal parts are necessarily pretty flexible so if they don't fit perfect as delivered, it's not a big deal to shove them into place, bend them a little bit, push on them and rivet them together," said Charles Eastlake, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and a former aircraft structural designer for the Air Force. "Quality control people turn purple when they see that, but it's the way it's always been."
Another argument holds that because planes are stripped down for major maintenance every five to seven years, any early cracks or corrosion would probably be spotted before the part could create a problem. In fact, FAA officials said their inspectors combed through records from airlines that performed such maintenance and found no reports of problems with bear straps, chords or frames. Spokesmen for Southwest, American and Continental airlines told The Post they had found no problems with the parts.
But some analysts suggest that when factory workers force together parts that are not built according to their design, it could eventually cause premature cracking.
When you "bend and twist" with undue force, you can introduce more stress on the parts and the structure they are attached to, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and former airline mechanic. Goglia said that can be especially true of parts used to reinforce the cabin around doors, which may be more vulnerable to fatigue.
But, Goglia added, the safety impact of any suspect part is difficult to determine without an engineer's analysis of how it was made and where it is used.
The FAA has yet to complete its second investigation. The agency said the same lead inspector has been assigned to the matter. "We're confident we came to the right conclusions in the first case," said Brown, the FAA spokeswoman.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report. Research assistance also was provided by the Brandeis University Institute for Investigative Journalism, which Graves directs.