Damage to the Boeing 777: the American regulator back in the spotlight

The aviation gendarme promised on Tuesday to act quickly to determine the causes of the damage that could be due to the “Metal fatigue” of the motor blades.

After the spectacular incident on a United Airlines Boeing 777, the US aviation gendarme, the FAA, finds itself once again in the hot seat. On Tuesday, he promised to act quickly to determine the causes of the damage that could be due to the “Metal fatigue” of the engine blades. “We want to understand what happened and then take the necessary steps to prevent a similar event from happening again in the future.”, said the boss of the federal agency, Steve Dickson, during an online conference. “We have been working on it non-stop since Saturday afternoon and I am convinced that we will succeed” he added.

The regulator had announced Monday at the end of the day that he had considered imposing more stringent inspections on the Pratt & Withney engines equipping the 777 after an incident on a Japan Airlines flight at the end of 2020. This revelation was made shortly. only before the announcement of the first conclusions on the spectacular failure of a Boeing 777 operated by United Airlines on Saturday in Colorado, in the western United States. The American Aviation Constable (FAA) on Tuesday ordered a thermo-acoustic examination of the blades of certain engines equipping Boeing 777s similar to the one involved in the Denver incident to detect possible cracks invisible to the eye naked, before they can fly again. On Tuesday evening, engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney pledged to carry out the required inspections for all the companies concerned.

Depending on the results and other elements of the ongoing investigation, the FAA may decide to impose more frequent inspections of these engines, the organization said in a statement. The regulator had previously requested that these same engines be regularly inspected after another incident on February 13, 2018 on a United flight between San Francisco and Honolulu. The FAA will issue a new airworthiness directive for these devices once its safety experts have completed reviewing the available data on the flight.

Despite these announcements, the American aviation gendarme is at the center of attention after several incidents of the Boeing 777 which have similarities. The US transportation safety bureau, the NTSB, has warned it will take a close look at the actions the FAA has taken after the 2020 hitch and another in 2018. “Part of our investigation will certainly be to determine who knew what and when”NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a press conference Monday night. “We will look at what could have been done, what should have been done, if something had to be done”, he added.

Could the incident have been avoided?

The NTSB confirmed that two of the fan blades were damaged. The right engine caught fire and lost its fairing as multiple debris fell in a residential area on the outskirts of Denver. Underlying the question is whether Saturday’s incident could have been avoided had the FAA ordered a thorough inspection of the Pratt & Whitney engines. We have to wait for the final conclusions of the investigation, warn several aviation experts interviewed by AFP. But “It is possible that there was a common problem” to the three incidents, notes Scott Hamilton of the specialized site Leeham News.

This is not the first time that the actions or lack of actions of the FAA have come under scrutiny in a case involving Boeing. The agency had been strongly criticized for not having acted more forcefully after the crash in October 2018 of the 737 MAX of the Indonesian company Lion Air which left 189 people dead. Four months later, a similar Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed for similar reasons, killing 157 people. A US Congressional Transportation Committee concluded in September, after an 18-month investigation, that the FAA’s lack of oversight was to blame. Parliamentarians also criticized the regulator for being too close to Boeing.

Improve or rethink inspections

In the case of damaged Boeing 777 blades, “Or there is a problem with the molding of the manufacture of the titanium blades”, either it is a “Maintenance problem” with parts that “have not been changed early enough”, estimates Pascal Roche, professor of propulsion at the National School of Civil Aviation in Toulouse (ENAC). In all cases, the reporting of two previous incidents in three years “Means that the governor, the company and the engine manufacturer were closely monitoring the engine”, notes John Cox of the aviation safety firm Safety Operating.

If the problem is with the blades, we will have to determine whether the technicians missed a possible fault or if the fault was simply not detectable, he believes. The answer to this question will determine whether to improve the quality of inspections or rethink the way they are carried out, possibly requiring that the blades be replaced more often, he told AFP.

The action of the FAA, which had already increased the frequency of inspections, is however “defensible”, says John Cox. “Given what we know today, it might have been desirable to improve the inspections but (the regulator) did not have all this data at his disposal”. The FAA is due to issue a new airworthiness directive once its safety experts finish reviewing the data available on the United Airlines flight.


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