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FAA to order new inspections of some Airbuses

One of the engines from AA Flight 587 crashed into a gas station.
One of the engines from AA Flight 587 crashed into a gas station.  

From Kathleen Koch and Beth Lewandowski

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Concerned that visual checks alone might not detect damage, the Federal Aviation Administration will issue an order requiring ultrasonic inspections of certain Airbus A300-600 tail sections, perhaps as early as Tuesday, an agency spokeswoman said Monday.

The inspections will focus on Airbus aircraft that have previously experienced air turbulence encounters or sudden up-and-down or side-to-side movements caused by rudder movements, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

The expected directive follows the discovery of damage on the tail section, or vertical stabilizer, of an American Airlines Airbus that ran into trouble on its approach to a Florida airport in 1997.

The discovery of the damage was undetected after the incident and was only discovered through recent ultrasonic testing.

In-Depth: Flight 587 crash 

The finding could be critical in the investigation of what caused American Airlines Flight 587 to crash into a Queens, New York, neighborhood November 12 shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said it was looking at two rudder components, among other things, in its investigation of the crash that killed 260 people onboard and five on the ground.

Federal aviation safety officials called the finding of the damage on the 1997 plane "very significant," saying it called into question the adequacy of visual inspections to detect potential flaws in composite materials.

As to what the discovery says about the what happened to Flight 587, one official said, "Everything is still on the table. Nothing is ruled out."

Any plane undergoing ultrasound inspections would have to have its tail section removed, grounding it for as much as two weeks, FAA officials said.

One official said the ultrasound inspection of the American Airlines tail section and discovery of damage may have averted a future accident.

But Mary Anne Greczyn, a spokeswoman for Airbus Industrie, the manufacturer, said the damage was within the certifiable limits of allowable damage and the plane could have flown safely for an indefinite period of time.

Nevertheless, Airbus told investigators it would remove the stabilizer, the NTSB reported.

The NTSB said the damage was found in the pin bushing, or sleeve, around the pin that holds a portion of the vertical stabilizer to the fuselage.

In the 1997 incident, federal investigators said the plane likely experienced high-impact stress to its rudder and tail section following a stall over West Palm Beach, Florida. Investigators attributed the stall to the flight crew's failure to maintain adequate air speed.

The plane -- flying as American Airlines Flight 903 -- entered a series of roll maneuvers but landed safely. Two people on board the flight were injured.

The damage to the tail went undetected during a post-incident inspection of the aircraft and even after visual inspections ordered by the FAA in the wake of the deadly accident involving Flight 587.

Inspectors said the damage involved delamination of the composite material used in the tail section. Airbus A300s were the first generation of commercial aircraft to use this kind of non-metal, fiberglass material. Composite materials are also used on military jets such as the F-14 and F-16.

FAA and Airbus Industrie both have maintained that visual inspections were adequate to detect any failures of the composite material.

In January, Airbus gave a series of briefings to the media reiterating its belief that ultrasonic inspections were not needed to assure the safety of A300-600 tails.

"If the damage is not visible, then it is not of concern," said John Lauber, Airbus Industrie vice president of safety and technical affairs. "It will not grow to the point that it will not meet certification requirements."

The company said Monday the earlier comments referred to planes that had not exceeded the loads they were certified to handle. The plane involved in the 1997 incident had exceeded those loads, Greczyn said.

"This is the only ... incident that we know of in which the certifiable loads of the aircraft were exceeded," she said.

Airbus and the FAA are evaluating the service history data for all of the other 91 Airbuses in service in the United States to identify planes that have experienced similar upset or maneuver events as candidates for further ultrasonic inspection. One FedEx Airbus has already been identified.




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