|Friday June 2 3:50 PM ET
White House Group to Study Risks From Aging Wiring
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Friday it was
setting up a group to coordinate federal research on aging wiring,
a possible cause of at least two recent air disasters and nagging
headaches in spacecraft and nuclear power plants.
The new inter-agency group will pool expertise across a range
of disciplines to determine ``if there are common issues'' that
need to be addressed through research and development programs,
said Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman.
He said the group, to hold its first meeting on Wednesday,
was to report back to President Clinton's science and technology
advisor, Neal Lane, in October.
``We have concluded that aging wiring is an issue of national
concern that extends beyond aviation,'' Duncan Moore, the associate
White House director for technology, said in a May 10 memo outlining
the need for the new task force.
Investigators are studying whether wiring glitches might have
caused the crash of Trans World Airways Flight 800 in 1986 and
of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. Bad wiring has led to fires
and equipment failures for years in military and commercial
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has also
been dogged by wiring flaws on Columbia, Endeavor and Discovery
space shuttle missions.
Modern wide-body aircraft can contain nearly 200 miles of wiring,
much of it very thin, with insulation even thinner, often the
thickness of three human hairs.
``Aging wiring effects must be accounted for in the regulations
and practices which govern the design and maintenance of the
aircraft,'' Paul McCarthy, executive air safety chairman of
the Air Line Pilots Association, told Congress in September.
Moore, in the memo cited to Reuters, said his office was acting
after reviewing existing research and wiring safety efforts
under way at the Federal Aviation Administration, Department
of Defense and NASA.
He also cited the role of the International Aviation Safety
Association, a consumer safety group led by Lyn Romano, whose
husband, Ray, died in the SwissAir crash, and Ed Block, a former
Defense Logistics Agency wiring expert who is on an FAA panel
studying airliner wiring. Block, in a telephone interview, said
there was ``a crying need'' for the government to tackle what
he described as a ticking time bomb of a public safety hazard.
``For the longest time, I couldn't get any government official
to recognize that four-letter word -- wire -- as a potential
safety problem,'' he said.
The new White House initiative will be run by President Clinton's
National Science and Technology Council, set up in 1993 to coordinate
science, space and technology policies.
The new task force will include experts from the FAA, Pentagon
and NASA as well as the Departments of Commerce, Energy and
Transportation, said Siewert, the White House spokesman. The
creation of the panel was reported first in USA TODAY'S Friday
Separately, the FAA said it was considering requiring all commercial
airlines to pump inert gas into aircraft fuel tanks before takeoff
to prevent explosions like the one that brought down TWA Flight
In an interview with the Washington Post published on Friday,
Elizabeth Erickson, director of the aircraft certification service,
said new cost estimates showed the requirement would not be
As a result of the July 17, 1996, explosion and crash of TWA
Flight 800 that killed 230 people, the National Transportation
and Safety Board in December, 1996, issued an ``urgent'' recommendation
that center fuel tanks be modified in some way to prevent the
buildup of explosive vapors.
In the case of TWA 800, the NTSB has determined that fumes
in the Boeing 747's nearly empty center fuel tank exploded,
although no ignition source has been identified. The plane exploded
over the Atlantic Ocean about 12 minutes after it took off from
New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on a flight
Pumping an inert gas such as nitrogen into aircraft tanks before
takeoff would render them safe during the initial climb to higher
altitudes, where fuel vapors would cool to the point that they
would not be in danger of explosion. At higher altitudes, there
is insufficient oxygen to support combustion.
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