The Federal Aviation Administration late yesterday ordered U.S. commuter airlines flying the Brazilian-made plane that crashed in Jacksonville last Thursday to temporarily remove their fleets from service for a thorough inspection for possible flaws in the tail area.
The action will affect about 130 planes operated by more than 20 U.S. commuter airlines in all sections of the country and is certain to crimp airline service to many small- and medium-sized U.S. communities, a Civil Aeronautics Board official said.
If problems are found in other aircraft, further action might be necessary, federal safety officials said. The most severe would be a grounding of the fleet.
The plane involved is an Embraer 110, known as the Bandeirante or Bandit. A Provincetown-Boston Airlines (PBA) Bandeirante crashed almost immediately after takeoff from Jacksonville International Airport Thursday evening, killing all 13 on board.
"I don't have a good statistical sense of it yet, but it the inspection order will have a significant impact," said Patrick V. Murphy, associate director of the bureau of domestic aviation at the CAB. "Every part of the country has some essential service with the Bandeirante."
The Bandeirante is a twin-engine turboprop. It can have up to 19 seats and is used to connect small communities with major airports.
FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen said yesterday that all Bandeirantes will have to be inspected within 10 flight hours. "The reason for that is to let them get to a principal inspection place, where they can work indoors and do a good job," he said. "We estimate it will take two men about five hours each to do these checks."
If the planes pass inspection, they will be permitted to return to service.
Engen ordered the FAA action in consultation with his specialists who are participating in the National Transportation Safety Board investigation in Jacksonville. Safety Board Vice Chairman Patricia Goldman praised the FAA's inspection order as "an important precautionary first step."
Investigators have found that many parts of the tail section fell off the plane almost immediately after takeoff, although they still do not know the precipitating event. "We think we have figured out the failure sequence," Goldman said.
The right side of the horizontal stabilizer -- the "short wing" in the tail -- pulled loose from the fuselage in the area of a bulkhead, or wall.
Because of that tearing, some attachment brackets broke loose, then other parts of the tail including control surfaces fell off. With the horizontal stabilizer gone, the pilot became a passenger because the plane was uncontrollable.
The FAA-ordered inspections will stress the bulkhead area, the stabilizer attaching points, rivets and the controls in the tail area.
Last July, the FAA ordered all Bandeirante operators to inspect the rivets attaching the stabilizer to the area of that same bulkhead "to preclude structural failure." Periodic reinspections of the rivets also were ordered. Goldman said PBA records show that the crashed plane was in compliance.
That FAA directive came as a result of "U.S. experience" after consultation with Embraer, according to Newton Berwig, president of the Embraer Aircraft Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, the U.S. arm of the Brazilian manufacturer.
When the directive was issued, he said, "it was deemed by both the factory and the FAA to be sufficient; it did not seem serious." He also said, "We don't know what happened in Jacksonville . We know there were forces there that broke the tail, but it's going to be difficult to come up with a real fix for something you don't know."
His statement was echoed by U.S. experts, who are caught in one of the oldest problems in aviation safety regulation: whether to ground an airplane that has had an accident for unknown reasons.
As the investigation progressed, PBA voluntarily grounded its 18 remaining Bandeirantes Saturday.
Sources said some problems, such as loose rivets, cracks in bulkheads and wrinkled outer skin have been discovered in some of those Bandeirantes. That information was considered by the FAA before it issued its inspection order.
PBA's voluntary action and the FAA's emergency grounding Saturday of the Iowa carrier American Central for safety violations have removed 28 Bandeirantes from service. Several larger commuter airlines -- including Comair in the Ohio Valley, Imperial in California and Royale in Louisiana -- also use Bandeirantes.