Why I Won’t Set Foot On An Airbus

I don’t like flying on Airbus aircraft, not for patriotic reasons, but because I don’t trust them. Now it appears that my concerns aren’t imaginary after all. There have been several incidents of Airbus aircraft losing their vertical stabilizer in flight, one of which was the November 2001 crash of Flight 587 in Rockwell, Queens, New York.

The separation of the rudder may have further implications for the cause of the 587 crash. In its report, the NTSB said the tail and rudder failed because they were subjected to stresses “beyond ultimate load”, imposed because the co-pilot, Sten Molin, overreacted to minor turbulence and made five violent side-to-side “rudder reversals”. The report said the design of the A300 controls was flawed because it allowed this to happen.

However, the NTSB investigation has been criticised by many insiders. Ellen Connors, the NTSB chair, told reporters last January that the report was delayed because of “inappropriate” and “intense” lobbying by Airbus over its contents, adding: “The potential for contaminating the investigation exists.” In America, the NTSB staff is small and manufacturers provide many of the staff employed on air-crash investigations into their own products.

Carbon-fiber construction has some great advantages – it’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to work with, and it’s strong. However, it has the disadvantage that if it delaminates (the layers of the fiber material separating from each other due to water freezing and unfreezing between layers) it will cause the part to structurally fail. Unlike metal, which will dent and show clear stress marks under polarized filters, carbon fiber damage that can lead to delamination won’t show up under visual inspection.

However, Airbus’ maintenance standards only call for visual inspection of an aircraft’s structure to determine the amount of damage. On a carbon fiber aircraft that simply isn’t acceptable. Ultrasound needs to be used in order to locate any subsurface voids that would be the first sign of delamination.

Believe me, if you look out your cabin window and see something like this you know there’s something seriously, seriously wrong with your aircraft. Already there have been several non-fatal incidents with vertical stabilizer delamination with Airbus A300-series aircraft besides the fatal crash of Flight 587.

Until maintainance procedures are changed to include regular ultrasound inspections of the vertical stabilizer and other surfaces of Airbus aircraft, the chances for another fatal incident remain unacceptably high. While air travel is far safer than ground travel, taking a lax attitude towards the structural integrity of an object travelling at 80% of the speed of sound 7 miles above the ground doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.

2 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Set Foot On An Airbus

  1. How exactly do you plan on avoiding a certain type of aircraft? I don’t know about how you fly, but when I book my tickets, I don’t get a choice. In fact, I usually don’t know the aircraft type until after I book the ticket, and often not even until I board the plane.

    Seems to me that the airlines are the ones that need to have higher, and consistant, maintenance standards. No one blames Ford or GMC because their manual does or doesn’t say how often to change the oil and what maintenance is required.

    That photo of the engine is quite insane!

  2. eliot:

    I buy all my tickets online, usually thru Orbitz. When I put in the request, the site gives me a list of flights matching the date that include the type of plane.

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