March 16, 2005

"He Who Will Not Answer to the Rudder, Answers to the Rocks"

THE FRENCH spent more than $4 billion and eleven years building the FS Charles du Gaulle, the sole aircraft carrier in the French Navy. For their trouble, they got a ship slower than the one it replaced, a ship with faulty electrical systems, and a ship with a nuclear reactor that's dangerous to its crew. The ship was so badly built, in fact, that one of its two 19-ton propellers broke while it was at sea.

One can only imagine the conversation which took place when that happened:

ADMIRAL: Commander, plot a course for ... (CRASH) ... Good God, what the hell was that?! Engine room! Damage report!
ENGINE ROOM: It's the propeller, sir!
ADMIRAL: What's wrong with the propeller?
ENGINE ROOM: Aucune -- that's what's wrong with it!
ADMIRAL: Aucune?! Impossible!
ENGINE ROOM: OK, fine! You're so smart, you come down here and fix the damn thing!

Now, the way we see it, it's one thing if European firms build a lousy aircraft carrier, but another thing entirely if European companies build lousy aircraft. After all, the latter are more of a threat. And while we wouldn't want to criticize the entire Airbus fleet, we will admit we're rather concerned about this report recently in The Observer.

In the story, we learn that last week, an Airbus A310 had its goddamn rudder fall off at 35,000 feet. (Capitalist Lion has a picture. His response? "Jeebus"). When one reads on in The Observer article, one finds that "Jeebus" escapes one's lips more than once. The paper writes:

One former Airbus pilot, who now flies Boeings for a major United States airline, told The Observer: "This just isn't supposed to happen. No one I know has ever seen an airliner's rudder disintegrate like that. It raises worrying questions about the materials and build of the aircraft, and about its maintenance and inspection regime. We have to ask as things stand, would evidence of this type of deterioration ever be noticed before an incident like this in the air?"

He and his colleagues also believe that what happened may shed new light on a previous disaster. In November 2001, 265 people died when American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 model which is almost identical to the A310, crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York. According to the official report into the crash, the immediate cause was the loss of the plane's rudder and tailfin, though this was blamed on an error by the pilots.

There have been other non-fatal incidents. One came in 2002 when a FedEx A300 freight pilot complained about strange "uncommanded inputs" -- rudder movements which the plane was making without his moving his control pedals. In FedEx's own test on the rudder on the ground, engineers claimed its "acuators" -- the hydraulic system which causes the rudder to move -- tore a large hole around its hinges, in exactly the spot where the rudders of both flight 961 and flight 587 parted company from the rest of the aircraft.

We should note that Airbus insists all is well with its aircraft design, and says that many engineering experts are assured of the safety-monitoring procedures used to inspect the aircraft. Still, this is the type of story which makes us a wee bit thankful that when we fly, we're generally stuck on Brazilian jets. And perhaps we ought make a point, as some of the pilots quoted in the story do, of flying Boeing craft on the longer flights.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 16, 2005 11:31 PM | TrackBack