The mainstream press has devoted a lot of column inches to the Microsoft vs. Dept. of Justice case and Bill Gates’ Ronald-Reagan-like ability to dodge all blame and forget. But very little space has been given to problems at the other Puget Sound behemoth: Boeing.
Two recent articles in the P-I, both written by James Wallace (who, by the way, has also written critical biographies of Bill Gates), detailed Boeing’s serious problems with foreign object debris left inside new Boeing wide-body jets built at the Everett plant. Foreign object debris is so common in new Boeing jets that it has its own acronym, FOD. FOD usually consists of tools and spare parts that get sealed up inside the wings or rudders of new jets; left to bounce around during flight, these object can cause considerable damage.
Recent cases of FOD damage include a 16 oz. hammer found inside a an EgyptAir 777 rudder; the hammer caused two cracks in the rudder hinge, a critical part of the rudder assembly. It was discovered by EgyptAir mechanics during a routine inspection. United Parcel Service mechanics also recently found a 5 lb. bucking bar banging around inside the rudder of one of their 767s; it had punched a hole in the compartment that holds the rudder control motors. (Notably, UPS recently decided to order their new jets from Airbus, instead of their old standby, Boeing, after citing customer service and “quality control” problems.) Another recent case of FOD damage is the grounding of a 777 after flashlight batteries found bouncing around inside a wing had corroded and shorted out one of the plane’s landing lights.
The B.F. Goodrich airplane maintenance facility in Everett, which does “C checks”–major overhauls of new airplanes after they’ve already been delivered to customers–routinely finds a lot of FOD in new Boeing planes. One B.F. Goodrich mechanic said: “Whenever we get a new Boeing plane in for a C check, the standing joke is, ‘I wonder what tools Boeing has left for us today.'”
Speed-ups in production, mandatory overtime, and under-staffing are undoubtedly the main causes of FOD. Boeing personnel are expected to complete a final visual check of wings and rudder components before sealing them up, to prevent tools and other objects from being left behind. Obviously that’s not happening. Yet Boeing is set to lay off around 10,000 workers by the end of the year, mainly to please shareholders and boost their stock price.
The FOD problem becomes more serious when presented alongside Boeing’s ongoing battle with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has ordered Boeing to install new rudder valves on all 737s, after two crashes were linked to mechanical problems with the rudders on 737s. Tests have shown that the rudder can jam, causing it to swing in the opposite direction from the one the pilot intended (oops!). The two domestic crashes linked to faulty rudders include a Sept. 1994 crash of a 737 near Pittsburgh (everyone was killed) and a 737 that plowed into the ground while landing near Colorado Springs in March 1991 (again, everybody died). Boeing vehemently denies that the rudder was at fault, but the National Transportation Safety Board could find no evidence for any other cause.
The final straw came last December, when an Asian SilkAir 737-300 that was cruising along at 34,000 feet on a perfect, calm, sunny day suddenly plummeted from the sky and plowed into a river in Indonesia, killing everyone aboard. The only cause offered by investigators was a mechanical malfunction in the plane’s rudder–although that didn’t stop racist Australian and other western reporters from proposing pilot suicide as the cause (i.e., all Asians pilots must be “kamikazis”). Notably, less than a month after the SilkAir disaster, Al Gore finally ordered the FAA to force Boeing to fix the faulty 737 rudders.
To top it all off, last week, the St. Petersburg Times reported that cracks have been found in several of the replacement parts used to fix these faulty rudders. Parker Hannifin is the subcontractor producing the key part–a replacement valve that’s already been installed in about 1,000 737s here in the U.S. So the FAA is now contemplating a second recall to order a fix of the fix.
So Boeing’s quality control problems are nothing new, and may be the cause of many “mysterious” airline disasters. The notoriously slow, corrupt, and lax FAA is unable (and often unwilling) to police the U.S.’s only major commercial airplane company. The race for Boeing to improve its stock price and compete with Airbus is unlikely to improve matters, since Boeing is undergoing a strong shift of resources from its commercial airline department–with its low profit margins–to its defense contracting and space departments–both industries that can be assured big, guaranteed profits from the public till for the production of mediocre (and unneeded) equipment.
One final aside: last Friday Boeing was forced to cancel the launch of a Delta 2 rocket at Cape Canaveral when ground controllers realized that the main engine wouldn’t be able to swivel fully to steer the rocket. At least this one didn’t explode…but it didn’t get off the ground, either. This would all be very funny, I’m sure, if it wasn’t so grotesque. And, for taxpayers, expensive.