Audit reveals jet problems

Report raises questions about plant that made crashed plane

Posted: Monday, February 21, 2000

LOS ANGELES - The McDonnell Douglas plant that built the Alaska Airlines jet that crashed last month was targeted in the early 1990s by an audit that found workers signed off on incomplete work, performed unauthorized repairs and used out-of-date blueprints, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The Times reported Sunday that a 1991 Federal Aviation Administration audit discovered manufacturing procedures at the Long Beach plant were marred by repeated production problems. It also found that parts were improperly inspected.

The FAA was trying to locate the audit on Sunday. If found, it could be turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency leading the crash investigation, FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said.

``We can't comment until we find it,'' she told The Associated Press.

The MD-83 that crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles off the Ventura Coast on Jan. 31, killing all 88 people aboard, was delivered to Alaska Airlines in May 1992.

A spokesman for Boeing, which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, said Sunday that the plane was mechanically sound when it was delivered to Alaska Airlines.

``Trying to tie the delivery of that airplane to that audit is irresponsible,'' John Thom said. ``Regardless of whatever regulatory surveillance the company was under, we did not deliver airplanes that did not meet quality standards. We don't deliver planes to our customers unless they're ready to fly.''

Thom said he had not seen the audit, but said McDonnell Douglas would have addressed any problems that were found. He said the plant passed two FAA inspections last year.

According to the Times, company supervisors urged employees at the plant to improve their work in January 1991, shortly before FAA auditors were to visit.

One memo warned that the ``consequences for failure are heavy fines, and in the extreme, loss of our production certificate.''

The federal team nevertheless found problems throughout the production line. It concluded the company showed a ``lack of discipline'' in assembling and inspecting its airplanes, the newspaper said.

The plant where the plane was built was struggling financially at the time of the audit, the newspaper reported. Douglas Aircraft Co., a McDonnell Douglas subsidiary, posted a $222 million operating loss for 1989 and was straining to fill orders for its jetliners.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times reported Sunday that Alaska Airlines lubricated jackscrews - the parts used to adjust horizontal stabilizers - much less frequently than other carriers.

Investigators probing the crash of Flight 261 are focusing on a part that moves the stabilizer, a 40-foot tail-mounted wing that controls the up-and-down pitch of the aircraft's nose.

The crew reported problems with the horizontal stabilizer and was trying to correct them when the plane crashed.

A 2-foot-long, bolt-like jackscrew that drives the stabilizer was found to be entwined with metal shavings believed to have come from an 8-inch gimbal nut that was retrieved later and found to have damaged threads.

The Seattle Times reported that at the time of the crash, the airline was lubricating the jackscrews every 2,500 flight hours, or about once every eight months. Other carriers performed the job as often as every 500 flight hours.

The FAA approves the maintenance schedules on a case-by-case basis, considering an airline's experience, the age and history of its fleet and its flight environment. Alaska said in a written statement that its longer interval between lubrication schedules was the result of ``demonstrated reliability.''

FAA data indicates that the MD-80 has a strong safety record. But mechanical problems with its horizontal stabilizer have prompted the FAA to order mandatory inspections five times since 1988.

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