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Boeing Lacks Records for Probe of Fuselage Tears, U.S. Says

Investigation Into Fuselage Tear Hampered by no Records
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman points at the section of the fuselage skin which was torn from a Southwest Boeing 737-300 aircraft during a news briefing on April 5, 2011. A lack of manufacturing records has hampered the NTSB’s investigation, two sources familiar with the investigation told Bloomberg. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Boeing Co. didn’t keep manufacturing records that might have allowed investigators to determine why the fuselage on an American Airlines 757-200 jetliner tore in flight last year, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

That lack of records has also hampered the NTSB’s efforts to pinpoint the cause of a larger tear that forced the crew of a Southwest Airlines Co. 737-300 to make an emergency landing April 1, according to two government officials familiar with the investigation. They asked not to be identified as the probe is ongoing.

“Records of manufacture for the skin panels on the accident airplane and the other airplanes with fuselage skin cracking were not retained, and were not required to be retained,” the NTSB, which investigates U.S. transportation accidents and recommends safety improvements, wrote in a report on the American incident, dated Sept. 19, on its website. “Therefore, a cause for the manufacturing non-conformance could not be identified.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the aircraft manufacturing industry, may require manufacturers to increase the length of time they keep records, Frank Paskiewicz, acting deputy director of the agency’s Aircraft Certification Service, told an NTSB forum on the fuselage-rupture issue today.

Record-Keeping Contrasts

Boeing keeps its records for 10 to 11 years, depending on the date the plane was made, said Erik Nelson, deputy vice president of manufacturing for the 737 program.

Three other commercial aircraft manufacturers -- Airbus SA, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co.; , Bombardier Inc. and Embraer SA -- keep their manufacturing records for the life of each airplane, executives of those companies said at the NTSB forum today.

The American jet’s skin was too thin, which led to cracks, the NTSB found. Without records detailing how the plane was built and inspected, the safety board wrote, it could not determine the source of the manufacturing defect.

In the Southwest incident, a 5-foot section of the jet tore open at 34,000 feet, triggering an explosive decompression and injuring one flight attendant. The plane made an emergency landing in Yuma, Arizona.

The accident has been tied to rivets not being secured properly when the jet was built in 1996, according to the NTSB and Boeing airplanes chief James Albaugh.

Records of how those rivets were installed and inspected don’t exist, the officials told Bloomberg.

Unexplained Pattern

The reason records don’t exist was detailed in the safety board’s report on the American incident, in which an 18- by 7-inch tear opened above the left-side front passenger door at 32,000 feet, about 16 minutes after the jet left Miami Oct. 26.

The jet made an emergency landing in Miami. No one was injured.

During its investigation, the safety board discovered two other 757s with thin skin and similar patterns of cracking. Manufacturing records for those planes also weren’t kept, the safety board wrote.

The FAA in 2009 revised its rules to require that manufacturers keep records for at least five years, according to the Federal Register. In the case of “critical” components, manufacturing records must be kept for at least 10 years.

‘Opportune Time’

The previous rule, which dated to 1964, required that records be kept for two years.

One aviation manufacturer, General Electric Co., advised the FAA to require that records be kept for 40 years. The agency said in the final rule that it was deferring to the advice of an industry committee. A manufacturer “may maintain records longer if it chooses,” the FAA said.

Manufacturers said it would be too expensive to keep the records for longer periods when the agency last considered the issue, Paskiewicz said today.

“A lot has changed since,” he said. “I think it’s an opportune time to take a look at that.” Many inspection reports and other documents on each aircraft built are now computerized, he said.

The current rule took effect in April of this year, Paskiewicz said. It wouldn’t have helped investigators in the American or Southwest probes as both jets were built more than 10 years ago.

Withstand Cracks

The Southwest tear was one of the most serious malfunctions of aircraft skin since an Aloha Airlines 737-200 almost broke apart on April 28, 1988. A flight attendant was sucked out of the plane and fell to her death after an 18-foot section of the fuselage opened over Maui.

The FAA requires that jets be built to withstand cracks and tears in the aluminum skin. Boeing builds its planes with a thicker layer of skin every 20 inches designed to stop cracks from growing.

Cracks in the Southwest skin spread through two of the thicker strips before halting, meaning that the measures designed to prevent an aircraft breakup failed, according to preliminary findings of the NTSB investigation.

The NTSB has investigated several cases of jet skins tearing open in recent years, prompting the agency to hold a two-day forum on the topic starting today at its Washington headquarters.

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