View Full Version : United finds problem in A320 Tail

Shore Guy
14th Dec 2001, 00:39
Not normally a quotable newspaper, USA Today is today reporting UAL found a problem in the composite vertical stab of an A320. Kudos to UAL for going beyond the letter of the A.D. and doing an ultrasound inspection.
Following post will be a piece for last Sundays LA Times on composites.


United finds defect in tail of one of its Airbus jets

By Marilyn Adams and Alan Levin, USA TODAY

United Airlines has found evidence of a small defect in the tail section of
one of its Airbus jets, officials told USA TODAY.

United and Airbus officials say the defect isn't significant enough to
warrant repair, and the jet is being returned to service. But it's the first
evidence of a flaw in an Airbus jet since a 27-foot tail fin tore lose on
an American Airlines Airbus A300, causing it to crash Nov. 12 in New York,
killing 265 people.

United mechanics found the flaw, a tiny separation in the composite
material, in the area where the vertical tail fin connects to the fuselage.
Airbus officials say this defect does not mean there is a design problem
with its jets.

However, the discovery will be closely examined by crash investigators.

The mechanics found the defect by using an ultrasound test. The discovery is
likely to increase calls for broader ultrasonic testing of composite
material on passenger planes.

The FAA and French authorities ordered visual tests of A300 and A310 jet
tails after the crash, and no damage was found. But a visual test cannot
detect defects within composite material. The United jet, an A320, is a
different model from the one that crashed but has a similarly constructed
tail fin.

United decided to test three Airbus jets with vertical stabilizers that had
been repaired at the factory before delivery. Airbus had detected flaws
inside the composite material on those jets. The American Airlines Airbus
jet that crashed had a similar factory repair.

United's ultrasound test this week on the 6-year-old A320 found a flaw on
the opposite side of the stabilizer from where the factory repair had been

"We found a small ply separation on the other side of the tail," said Lou
Mancini, United's vice president for engineering. "You can't see it - the
indication showed up on an ultrasound test. We think it had been there since

Mancini said the airline notified the Federal Aviation Administration, and
that United will soon test the other two Airbus jets. The FAA is keeping a
close eye on the issue, said spokeswoman Laura Brown, but so far doesn't
believe there is a safety risk.

Airbus spokesman David Venz said the defect is in an area that doesn't
support the weight of the tail. "We are confident this airplane is fit to
fly," Venz said.

Composites experts Wednesday said it is possible that a minor defect could
exist in the carbon-fiber structure and create no danger. One benefit of
composites is that they tolerate some types of damage better than metals.

A source connected to the crash investigation said ultrasonic tests may be
needed to gauge whether jets have defects. So far, the investigation has not
found evidence that the tail of the A300 that crashed was damaged, but the
examination has barely begun.

Shore Guy
14th Dec 2001, 00:46
Jet Crash Adds Urgency to Issue of Inspecting Composite Parts


WASHINGTON -- Fighter jets built for the Pentagon are routinely inspected
with ultrasound to detect hidden flaws that may develop in lightweight
composite materials used to make such critical parts as the wings and tail.

But only visual maintenance inspections were required for the Airbus A300
jetliner that crashed last month in New York after its composite tail fin
broke off.

The adequacy of visual inspections has become a focus of the National
Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the Nov. 12 crash of
American Airlines Flight 587, a source close to the probe said. Composite
materials can be weakened by internal failures that are not visible on the
surface. Adding to the concerns is the fact that the tail fin had a flaw
that was fixed before the plane was put into service. Some engineers who
work with composites say that condition should have warranted more than
regular visual inspections.

"As a passenger on a plane built with composites, I personally would feel
much more secure knowing that the structures received periodic inspection
with ultrasound," said Lee McKague, a Fort Worth engineer with more than 30
years of experience with composites, mainly with military and aerospace

The NTSB has not determined what caused the crash in which 265 people died.
It is the first major civil aviation accident involving the failure of a key
component built of composites. The investigation ultimately may lead to new
government standards for inspecting and repairing composite components on
airliners. Recommended methods vary among manufacturers, and the Federal
Aviation Administration has approved a variety of techniques.

After the success of military designers, builders of commercial aircraft are
making greater use of composites in stress-bearing structures. The advanced
material is created by molding together many individual sheets of carbon
fibers that are embedded in a special epoxy resin. Composites are lighter
and stronger than most metals, but their stiffness can be compromised by
internal flaws that are invisible to the eye.

Ultrasound inspection of composites is more costly and time-consuming than
visual checks, but engineers say it is also more revealing. Ultrasound
relies on sound waves to generate an image of the internal condition of an
object; a similar technology is used in doctors' offices to monitor

"If we had a question about a composite structure, we would inspect it
ultrasonically," said Mike Thomas, manager of laser ultrasonic testing for
Lockheed Martin Corp., which is building the government's new F-22 Raptor
fighter jet. "Ultrasound is the standard method of looking at composites."
The company has developed a technology that combines lasers and ultrasound
to simplify inspections.

Many industry experts also question the usefulness of a recent FAA directive
calling for inspections of the tail fins of similar A300 and A310 jets after
the Flight 587 crash. The FAA ordered visual inspections, not ultrasonic; no
problems have turned up.

"I'm always a little leery of visual inspections only on composites," said
Ronald Bucinell, a professor of mechanical engineering at Union College in
Schenectady, N.Y. "I don't think they tell enough of the story."

Airbus spokesman Mark Luginbill said the company recommends a visual
inspection of the composite tail fin every five years, as part of a
scheduled heavy maintenance check. A source close to the investigation said
American Airlines followed Airbus' recommendations on the plane that
crashed. The tail fin was last checked visually in December 1999. No
problems were found.

Luginbill said Airbus also conducts an ultrasound inspection on composite
parts before an aircraft is put into service. "We're very comfortable with
our manufacturing and inspection process," he said. Other manufacturers rely
on similar inspection methods. Airbus, a European consortium, is one of the
world's top makers of commercial jets.

But several engineers said ultrasound inspections during maintenance could
have been particularly valuable in the case of the plane that crashed,
because a flaw had been discovered in the composite material before the
aircraft was put into service in 1988.

The flaw was a "delamination," meaning that some layers of the composite
material had come apart. Engineers say that, in a new part, a delamination
is usually a sign of a problem in the manufacturing process.

Once a component has gone into service, delaminations develop usually
because of an impact during flight or maintenance. Hailstorms or tools
dropped on a surface can cause problems. If a delamination begins deep in
the layers of the material, it isn't readily visible.

With delamination, the layers of the composite separate like pages of a
book, weakening the material and reducing its ability to bear stress. When a
book is closed and standing upright, its pages can easily support the weight
of a nickel. But if those pages are ruffled open, at some point the coin
will drop.

The delamination in the American Airlines plane was found in one of six
attachment points that connected the tail fin to the main fuselage. The NTSB
said technicians repaired the problem at the time, following established
procedures. No additional inspections were deemed necessary beyond the
standard visual check every five years.

Now investigators are trying to determine whether the fix may have played a
role in the failure of the tail fin.

Arum Kumar, who heads Seal Laboratories in El Segundo and is recognized by
the FAA as an expert in failure analysis of composites, said the repair
could have made one attachment point stronger than the other five.

"That would have shifted the load to the other points, putting more load on
them than they were designed for," Kumar said. "It's hard to repair
composites. Generally, you replace them."

McKague concurred: "That is alarming to me. There should not be any reason
for a manufacturing defect on a scale that requires repair. I would want to
understand why the defect occurred and how one could be assured it wasn't
evidence of a weakness that would spread with loading."

Often, major accidents are the result of a combination of factors.
Investigators are looking at everything from the design of the aircraft to
the turbulence it encountered after takeoff to the actions of the pilots.
Meanwhile, the tail fin has been shipped to NASA's Langley Research Center
in Virginia for intensive analysis. Langley specializes in advanced
aerospace materials such as composites.

"As composites are being used more and more, it's not surprising that we're
looking at something that happened with a structure that had composites in
it," said Mark Shuart, director of structures and materials at Langley.

Although the investigation is expected to continue for months, the crash
renewed debate within the aviation industry about how to improve and
standardize inspection and repair of composite materials.

"While metals are much better understood, we are still growing up when it
comes to this field of composites," said Ed Wen, an engineer at Aurora
Flight Sciences of West Virginia, which manufactures composite parts for
military aircraft.

The crash of Flight 587 "is going to change the whole subject of inspection
of composites," Wen added. "Obviously, we have to do much more rigorous

Until recently, ultrasonic inspection has been tedious and expensive.
Typically, it involved using water or a gel to transmit the sound waves.
Parts with irregular shapes were difficult to inspect, and major components
often had to be taken off an airplane for the process.

But Lockheed Martin has developed a technique that uses lasers to generate
an ultrasonic signal, eliminating the need for water and making inspections
faster, more thorough and less expensive.

Known as Laser UT, it is being used for factory inspection of advanced
fighter aircraft that are subject to much greater stresses in flight than
commercial airliners. The ultrasound images generated during factory
inspections can be stored and later compared with the results of maintenance
inspections in the field.

The Air Force is exploring ways to add Laser UT to its maintenance depots,
where aircraft are now inspected using less sophisticated hand-held
ultrasonic probes.

"It is a health monitor for the aircraft once it gets into service," said
Thomas, the Lockheed manager. "We've got a whole regime of things that can
happen, from bird strikes to battle damage. Now we are able to establish a
baseline for an aircraft during manufacturing and monitor it over time for
any changes."

15th Dec 2001, 21:55
United doesn't fly the 300/310

They fly the 320 and it wasn't covered by the AD, but as the tails are constructed similarly, watch out AIRBUS could have a huge problem now that cracks have been found elsewhere. Its certainly looking like composits aren't "unlimited life"....


16th Dec 2001, 04:41
Airbus officials say this defect does not mean there is a design problem
with its jets.

Well, i could point out a few others.. :D

Everyone knows that composites are of limited lifetime.. Problem beeing that there might be a tendency to examine these materials as you do with conventional materials..
They donīt wear the same and they definately donīt tear the same..
Cracks in fibrematerials are almost impossible to detect by visual examination..
You just have to take it one step further..
If they saved a huge amount of money purchasing them, they might find that you will have spend the dime in maintaining them..

Ignition Override
16th Dec 2001, 10:16
"The FAA is keeping a close eye on the situation", says spokeswoman...

After a French or Italian ATR-42 lost some lateral control years ago, having been informed of this, our FAA kept "closed" eyes on the need for realistic ATR icing certification criteria, along with so many things which would have saved lives (designated rest periods for crewmembers on reserve for multiple, consecutive days and nights, no extendable duty periods for Part 91 ferry flights [i.e.18-30 hours on duty without rest]...planeloads of passengers killed due to intruders-but still no cockpit door locks, charges against maybe half of all wackos who assaulted crewmembers or broke into cockpits...).

Knowing that our US FAA is on watch in a foxhole at the defensive perimeter (with ammo loaded and the safety off?), we can all sleep much better in the future. The FAA does a consistently excellent job with air traffic control and also whether air carrier documentation looks correct (ever heard of Valuejet?).

[ 16 December 2001: Message edited by: Ignition Override ]

[ 16 December 2001: Message edited by: Ignition Override ]