O-RINGS, gaskets or washers that seal against an oil leak, were missing from each of the three Rolls Royce jet engines on the Lockheed L1011 aircraft making Eastern's flight to Nassau on May 5. As a result, all three engines failed, and the airliner, powerless, plunged almost four miles before the crew of the jumbo jet, carrying 172 persons, was able to restart one engine and make a safe emergency landing back in Miami. How could all these seals be missing when they are supposed to be withdrawn and inspected every 30 hours of aircraft operation?

Says an Eastern executive: "Apparently there is some confusion" among the airline's maintenance personnel about responsibility for ensuring proper installation of the seals. Two mechanics say that they never replaced the seals and that the seals were attached to the appropriate bolts when they picked up the bolts at a supervisor's station. A technical foreman says he and his assistants never replaced the seals--that it was the mechanics' job.

In any event, the bolts that were installed had no seals--and even though Work Order N7204 says to use new seals, nobody did. The rest of the story is a credit to the phenomenally cool and skillful crew, as indicated in portions of the air traffic control tape printed For the Record elsewhere on this page.

An isolated incident? According to Federal Aviation Administration records introduced Tuesday, Eastern L1011s have had to shut down engines in flight on six occasions since September 1981. The engines had either missing or damaged oil seals. What happened after these incidents? FAA inspectors discussed them with Eastern but took no formal action until after this last incident, in which the two mechanics received 30-day suspensions.

What kind of government inspection is this? National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Burnett asked the FAA's principal inspector for Eastern if FAA's inspectors had visited the maintenance line to watch the changing of bolts and seals. "We made contact at the vice-president level" was the reply. That prompted an understandable and pertinent response from the chairman: "Vice presidents are not putting on O-rings."

Currently the FAA is proposing that each airline establish its own maintenance procedures. This is a step backward. Until the FAA moves with more vigor and direction, crews and passengers alike are being subjected to unnecessary and unconscionable risks.