The Search For Ways To Keep Aging Planes Flying

It's a worrisome trend: According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the average age of U. S. commercial airplanes is 13 years--and will soar to 20 by the year 2000. Most aircraft have a design life of 20 years. Yet "there is a new damage-tolerant philosophy which says, as long as we increase inspections, we can keep older planes flying longer," says Chris C. Seher, an FAA expert on aging aircraft.

Keeping aging planes aloft will require better methods of spotting metal fatigue and other potential dangers before they lead to catastrophe. Most current procedures, says Seher, are outmoded: "80% to 90% of all inspections are done by visual examination using flashlights and magnifying glasses."

The FAA plans to change that. This month, the agency will hand $3.4 million to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque to set up a center to improve nondestructive inspection techniques, such as ultrasound and X-rays, and to probe innovative approaches that might lead to new technologies.

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