Is the DC-9 Safe? Does the FAA Care?
By Willy Stern
OCTOBER 20, 1997: Last summer, aviation consultant Peter M. Friedman was hired to inspect parts being installed on DC-9 airplanes at a Trans World Airlines maintenance facility in Kansas City, Mo. Friedman's specific objective was to perform a routine audit of the airplane's "hush kits," the devices used to muffle engine noise. These particular hush kits had been designed and sold by ABS Partnership, a low-profile, privately held company based in Sparks, Nev. In fact, ABS itself had hired Friedman to double-check the hush kits to make certain they were of top quality and were being installed properly.
Friedman's credentials indicated that he was the right man for the job. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has designated him one of its "manufacturing inspection representatives," and he is certified by the American Society for Quality Control as a "quality auditor." But in addition to his work as an aviation consultant, Friedman also serves as vice president and director of quality at Airweld Inc., a major aircraft repair facility in Oakland, Calif. Airweld specializes in DC-9s, the only planes that use ABS's hush kits.
In some sectors of the aviation industry, Friedman has a reputation as a relentless safety hound. Sometimes his critics describe him as a stickler for technical violations. But no one seems to doubt his abilities or knowledge of aviation safety issues.
A month after making his TWA inspection in Kansas City, Friedman continued his audit with a two-day, weekend inspection of ABS's warehouse in Sparks. His audit resulted in three reports totaling 19 pages. All three reports were submitted to ABS.
ABS had hired Friedman on a "confidential basis," meaning that he could only divulge the contents of his report to the company. Nevertheless, his reports, copies of which have been obtained by the Nashville Scene, were so explosive, and his safety concerns so troubling, that his 19 pages of comments have created a storm of controversy in aviation safety circles.
Friedman's findings raise fundamental questions about the safety of the more than 200 DC-9s that have been outfitted with ABS's hush kits. His report also appears to have triggered an FAA investigation of ABS. And the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which can investigate criminal activity in the aviation industry, has also "expressed interest in ABS," the FAA says. Nevertheless, the feds have been accused of dragging their feet in the investigation, and the airlines have taken their own steps to deal with their concerns about the hush kit. Airline representatives called a closed-door meeting last September in Kansas City to "discuss DC-9 hush kit issues."
As the public learns about the evidence amassed by Friedman, aviation experts across the country are raising grave doubts as to whether DC-9s flying with the hush kits are safe for air travel. One of those experts is Jim Frisbee, who was manager of quality assurance at Northwest Airlines until 1992 and who now works as an international aviation consultant. After reviewing the Friedman report at the Scene's request, Frisbee said it raised "serious safety problems." According to Frisbee, "Depending on the circumstances, the FAA may well have to ground these planes."
The Scene also submitted a copy of the Friedman report to George Breckel, a veteran aircraft mechanic who has inspected the type of Pratt & Whitney engines to which the hush kit is attached. Breckel now coordinates the aircraft mechanics' training program at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Ind. "There's no way I'd let my family fly on a plane with one of those hush kits," Breckel said. Richard Martz, manager of the FAA's flight standards district office in Nashville, also reviewed Friedman's findings. After reading the report, Martz said, "If what Friedman says is true, then [there is] a serious problem."
If you travel by airplane, there's a pretty good chance that you'll find yourself boarding a DC-9 one day. U.S. airlines own almost 600 of them, and it is estimated that at least one-third of the DC-9s in the country are flying with ABS hush kits. The major U.S. air carriers currently flying DC-9s with ABS's hush kits are TWA, Airborne Express, US Airways, and Northwest Airlines. On a typical day, the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority says, 23 DC-9s depart from Nashville International Airport. For airline passengers, Friedman's report is chilling. The report warns of numerous problems that could arise from the hush kits and "affect safety of flight" for the DC-9s. The report recommends that ABS take corrective action before a "catastrophic incident" occurs.
Specifically, Friedman's audit says the hush kit sold by ABS simply does not fit properly onto the back of the Pratt & Whitney engine that powers the DC-9. What's more, the report says, engineers and mechanics for each airline must figure out how to attach the kit's parts without the benefit of proper plans or workable instruction manuals. That state of affairs, which is in blatant violation of FAA regulations, increases the likelihood that mechanics will make mistakes when installing the hush kits.
If there is a bad fit, Friedman's report warns, the doors encasing the engine's tailpipe could blow open in mid-flight. That would be bad news for the DC-9, which typically cruises at speeds around 500 mph. If the doors were ripped open, one of the plane's engines would continue to thrust the plane forward, while the other engine would do just the opposite. In that eventuality, the DC-9 could roll over onto its back, corkscrew down, and crash.
There's another terrifying scenario. If not fitted properly, one of the tailpipe doors could fly free and knock off the plane's tail, which sits just behind the two engines. If that happened in mid-flight, aviation safety experts say, a crash would be virtually inevitable.
Friedman's report on the ABS hush kits also warns of mislabeled parts, incomplete data, miscalibrated equipment, and obsolete parts. It also charges that airline personnel have received "absolutely no" training in inspecting the hush kits before they are installed. The report warns that flight safety may be compromised by "cracked links and hinges," as well as by inadequate installation instructions. Friedman's report also notes that he inspected the ABS "door assemblies" that encase the engine's tailpipe, and found "each one [was] different from the next." Under the terms of his confidentiality agreement, Friedman declined all comment about his dealings with ABS.
Hush kits are installed on airplanes because airplanes make a lot of noise, especially during takeoff and landing. Federal law requires that engine noise be kept below a certain level. To meet these federal standards, all DC-9s must be fitted with a "Stage 3" hush kit by Dec. 31, 2003. These are the kits manufactured by ABS. They are also the only product sold by the company.
Before the Stage 3 hush kits were required, DC-9s flew with "Stage 2" hush kits, which muffled the engine's roar, but far less successfully than ABS's Stage 3 version does.
ABS is the only U.S. company that has received FAA permission to design and sell a Stage 3 hush kit for the DC-9. According to ABS, the company has orders today for 377 hush kits from 20 customers, including Airborne Express, US Airways, Midwest Express, Northwest, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), TWA, and even the U.S. Department of Energy. Airborne, Midwest Express, and SAS say their planes are safe, though Midwest acknowledges "minor technical difficulties" with ABS's hush kits. US Airways, Northwest, and TWA declined comment.
A January 1997 price list from ABS products indicates that the kits cost from $1.3 million to $2 million for each aircraft. Because the company has a monopoly on Stage 3 hush kits for commercial DC-9s, and because the government is requiring all airlines to purchase the kits, they add up to an extremely lucrative business. Thus, Frisbee charges, "There's financial incentive for ABS to cover up the problem."
ABS denies covering up anything. In a letter to the Scene, ABS says the firm is "absolutely certain" of the hush kits' safety. In the same letter, the company says it has been "open and cooperative with the FAA, the DOT, our customers, and the media. We are proud of our product, its in-service record, the professionalism, dedication, and diligence of the team we have in place to support our product and comply with all regulatory requirements."
The FAA is the federal agency charged with maintaining air safety. While it has opened an investigation into the hush kits, it has not acknowledged that the hush kit may be unsafe. In fact, some have charged that the FAA has been unnecessarily slow to respond to concerns about the kits. Sources familiar with the FAA suggest that, rather than ensuring the public's safety, the FAA may be more interested in protecting the careers of FAA officials who should have been investigating the hush kits. No part can be legally installed on a U.S. airplane unless it has first been approved by the FAA, which is also charged with ensuring that airplane parts are made properly. Late last month, James V. Devany, manager of the FAA's Manufacturing Inspection Office for the Transport Airplane Directorate in Renton, Wash., said the FAA does not have "an airworthiness problem" with ABS's hush kit. Devany made the statement even though the FAA had already obtained Friedman's audit report.
Aviation safety experts who have seen Friedman's report are shocked at Devany's statement. "That's ludicrous," states Frisbee, the former quality assurance manager at Northwest. Thomas Cruse, the H. Fort Flowers professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, who is also a former manager at Pratt & Whitney and an expert in large aircraft engine structures, is equally critical of Devany's position. "A blanket statement indicating there are no safety or flight concerns is simply inappropriate," Cruse says. Breckel, the veteran aircraft mechanic, concludes simply, "The FAA has seriously screwed up."
Even Devany's colleagues at the FAA find his analysis suspect. "There appears to be a real safety of flight problem with the hush kit," says an FAA flight safety inspector who has reviewed Friedman's report and requested anonymity. "It looks like some FAA officials have taken a cover-your-ass mentality, instead of fixing the problem."
As industry insiders scratch their heads about the FAA's apparent unwillingness to deal with the hush kits' problems, some are charging that the reaction is typical of the FAA. In her recent best-selling book about the FAA, Flying Blind, Flying Safe, Mary Schiavo, former Inspector G"eneral of the U.S. Department of Transportation, charges that the FAA's entrenched bureaucracy seldom takes action until after a disaster has occurred. "The FAA would rather hide an aviation safety problem than fix it," she told the Scene last week. "The FAA doesn't act on a problem until after a crash, or more likely, after two crashes. That's what we call the 'Two Crash Rule.' They hush up safety problems because it costs a lot to fix them and because it's very embarrassing to the FAA."
Frisbee says the FAA's conduct may be explained by an unwillingness to admit that it has made a mistake. "If the FAA acknowledges that the DC-9's hush kit isn't safe, it would be a highly embarrassing admission that the FAA may have made serious mistakes--first in approving ABS's hush kit for use, and second for not exercising proper oversight of the manufacturing process to ensure the hush kits were built properly." Breckel is more succinct: "I'd say somebody, or [some]bodies, is covering their ass."
In a written response to the Scene's questions, ABS said it has never had a "failure, an airworthiness incident, or a safety issue" with any of its hush kits. It also said the firm "cooperates fully" with all regulatory agencies.
The FAA obtained Friedman's reports by subpoena. But it appears that the feds have not shown Friedman's report to any airline, a fact that has infuriated some airline officials. "The FAA should have informed us of Friedman's report," chides an airline engineer who works with the ABS hush kit and who analyzed Friedman's report for the Scene.
Meanwhile, the FAA has not stopped ABS from producing or selling the kits. "This is a total disaster. It's intolerable," charges Frisbee. "If I had seen this report when I was at Northwest, I'd have taken immediate action." Frisbee and others explained that, once the FAA gets even a sniff of a safety issue, agency officials are supposed to investigate. But the FAA does not seem to be taking Friedman's report very seriously.
In August, a month after FAA officials reviewed a copy of Friedman's report, Ronald T. Wojnar, manager of the FAA's Transport Airplane Directorate, told the Scene there was "no material of any major significance to the FAA" in the Friedman report.
In February 1997 an ABS Partnership spokesman told the Scene that ABS did not have "a single thing to hide." At that time, the spokesman added that there were no "safety of flight" problems stemming from the hush kit. However, the firm had already been in possession of Friedman's audit report, with its long list of safety questions, for five months. Today, the FAA acknowledges that ABS is the subject of an "investigation" due to the firm's "apparent failure to conduct proper inspections at their supplier." It appears that the FAA may be showing interest in the hush kit issue now because the OIG has pressured it into doing so. The FAA obtained Friedman's report only because OIG investigators had suspicions ABS was not giving straight answers. A source intimately familiar with the investigation says OIG investigators also suspected that the FAA was not challenging ABS's answers to its questions. The OIG can investigate criminal activity both in the aviation industry and within the FAA itself.
ABS's written response is that the company is "aware of certain inquiries by the FAA and the DOT" but is not "aware of any criminal investigation." An OIG spokesman declined comment.
The airlines, meanwhile, have taken their own steps to deal with potential problems with the ABS hush kit. John Williams, director of material management and component shops for Northwest Airlines in Atlanta, called a meeting of air carriers on Sept. 24, 1996, to "discuss DC-9 hush kit issues." Williams' invitation letter indicates that the meeting was to be held at TWA's Kansas City facility and that the participants were to include representatives of several carriers, including TWA and US Airways. Apparently, the FAA was not invited. Williams did not return repeated calls from the Scene. Northwest and the other carriers declined public comment.
But other airline officials who attended the meeting say there was lengthy discussion of the problems with the ABS hush kit, including the fact that it simply did not fit correctly. According to aviation industry sources, the FAA was not invited because the airline officials did not want to alert the federal agency to the problems. Instead, they apparently preferred to keep their hush kit problems quiet and deal with the "issues" in-house.
One reason the airlines would prefer to keep the problem secret may be money. An airline loses an estimated $19,000-$21,000 a day for every DC-9 that's taken out of service, according to The Canaan Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Park City, Utah. Northwest says it has 83 planes flying with ABS hush kits today, US Airways has 33, and TWA has 30. If the planes were to be grounded by the FAA to fix or replace the hush kits, the airlines would almost certainly forego significant revenue.
Questions about the hush kits should only be taken seriously, of course, if Friedman's report turns out to be accurate and fair, and if his own credibility is not challenged. [See sidebar, p. 26] It is worth noting that Friedman has a potential conflict of interest in connection with the hush kit issue. His employer, Airweld Inc., already has a contract to overhaul and repair certain parts on the model of the DC-9 that is flown by the U.S. military. In fact, Airweld is under contract to work on the very same section of the engine to which the ABS hush kit is attached. If ABS were knocked out of the hush kit business, Airweld, and dozens of other aviation firms, might look into designing and manufacturing the kits. At this point, Airweld has no history of manufacturing hush kits. Still, ABS was fully aware that Friedman worked for Airweld before he was tapped to do the audit report. "Even if half of what Friedman says is true," warns Breckel, "you've still got a serious problem." Vanderbilt's Thomas Cruse states that "Friedman's technical knowledge appears first-rate." While Cruse cautions that he would need more "technical information" before making a final determination on the DC-9's safety, he adds that the FAA can't be "confident" at this point that there are no safety concerns.
Meanwhile, at least one aviation safety expert isn't willing to wait for any more "technical information." According to Frisbee, "Friedman did a good audit. If [Devany] says there's no problem, then I'd like to tell him to put his wife and kids on one of those planes. Then wait and see what happens."
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