Federal Aviation Administration chief T. Allan McArtor yesterday launched a special inspection of the U.S. aircraft manufacturing industry -- the first review of its kind in recent memory.

McArtor said the review was not prompted by a specific incident or general evidence of declining quality in the industry but rather was an effort to stem erosion of public confidence in flying.

"I am not questioning the quality or the safety of these products up to this point," he said at a news conference. "What the FAA inspection is intended to do is make sure that the holders of FAA permits are fulfilling their responsibilities for quality control."

The inspections, which will begin next month, will include a look at 40 of 1,300 companies that make airplanes and spare parts. The review is expected to take between 15 and 18 months.

McArtor said the 40 firms will represent a "diagonal slice" of the industry, but said no list has been drawn up. He named the Piper Aircraft Corp., Cessna Aircraft Co. and Beech Aircraft Corp., which manufacture small planes and corporate jets, and the McDonnell Douglas Corp. and the Boeing Co. as likely candidates to be reviewed.

John Wheeler, a Boeing spokesman, said the Seattle-based manufacturer had "no prior knowledge" of the coming inspection until the announcement yesterday, and will have no comment until the FAA tells Boeing what it intends to do.

A spokesman for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing makers of small airplanes, called the inspections "timely, necessary and good," and the Aerospace Industries Association of America, which represents 48 aerospace companies, praised McArtor for his efforts to increase public confidence in aviation.

Since taking over the FAA seven weeks ago, McArtor has begun a public campaign to recapture public confidence in aviation. He has chided airline executives for paying too much attention to profit-and-loss statements and cautioned pilots against becoming complacent in the cockpit. The FAA recently completed a review of Delta Air Lines pilots, criticizing Delta pilots for lapses of vigilance.

By turning the spotlight on manufacturing, McArtor said the FAA will be able to check for any problems generated by rapid changes in technology. He said a proliferation of international production agreements could affect production quality.

"Given these changes, I see a need for the FAA to take a snapshot of the aircraft manufacturing industry," he said.

He said a review beyond the ordinary scope of regular inspections also will alert the FAA to any changes that may be needed in its inspection program. "We'll make sure we're current in our thinking," he said.

As a side issue, McArtor said, the special audit will search for counterfeit parts that may be in use in the industry. In years past, FAA inspectors have discovered airplanes repaired with spare parts manufactured by firms not certified by the FAA. McArtor said he has no way to assess how widely "bogus" parts are used today.

"Unchecked, it could be a serious problem," he said.

Last October, the FAA revoked the certification of a California aircraft parts manufacturer and charged the North Hollywood firm with selling hundreds of counterfeit parts to at least three commercial airlines.