News and Views | Beyond the City |
Tuesday, November 02, 1999
Danger From Inside Plane
In the end, the wire insulation on
EgyptAir Flight 990 might turn out to have had nothing to do with
the plane plummeting toward the ocean at 287 mph Sunday morning.
And even though the same insulation burned in Swissair 111 last
year, it might have played no part in that crash, either.
But the insulation — called Kapton — is being removed, systematically,
from Air Force One, just as it is being stripped from all Air Force,
Coast Guard and Navy aircraft. Kapton was banned from new military
aircraft more than a decade ago. All the space shuttles were grounded
last summer because damaged Kapton wiring was discovered on Columbia.
"I don't know if it will be found as the cause or part of it, but
these are facts, and people ought to know about them," Lynn Romano
says. "The complacency about air safety is stunning."
On Sept. 2, 1998, her husband, Ray, 44, who was based in New York
as a partner with the KPMG accounting concern, got in a car for
JFK and boarded a Swissair flight. The plane went down in Peggy's
Cove, in Newfoundland.
Lynn Romano wants to know why, and not for the money: Any compensation
she gets for his death will be put into the International Aviation
Safety Association, which she has founded. "Blood money is how I
see it," she says. "I know that's not how others in this situation
look at it, and they have to do what's right for them."
For her, the discussion starts with wiring. Whatever the significance
of insulation in the Swissair or EgyptAir catastrophes, the episode
opens a small window into how aircraft are regulated.
In 1991, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory
circular on several fire-safety issues. These included a warning
not to reset circuit breakers on wires insulated by Kapton.
"That causes an explosive condition," says Ed Block, a consultant
who was once the military's leading cable and wiring expert.
"They issued that as an advisory circular, and it should have been
an airworthiness directive," Romano says. That would have carried
more teeth, she says, and made it mandatory for the airlines to
tell their pilots. Instead, the Swissair checklist for smoke in
the cabin calls for the pilots to shut off all the switches, a third
at a time, which amounts to the same thing as throwing a circuit
"The pilot didn't want to die," Romano said. "He did it because
he didn't know."
Resetting a breaker on a hot Kapton wire can cause it to explode,
experts say. When a latrine failed to flush on an Air Canada plane
18 years ago, the crew assumed the motor had short-circuited. They
reset the breaker. The wiring overheated, caught fire, and it moved
from the toilet area through the plane. The fumes killed 23 people.
Cracked wiring also has been implicated in the TWA Flight 800 crash
by the National Transportation Safety Board. Fumes in the center
fuel tank were ignited, then exploded.
"The FAA's position is that there is no data that shows us any
particular type of wiring is a significant problem in the U.S. civil
aviation fleet," a spokesman for the agency said recently.
The FAA is a cautious operation, regulating a powerful industry
that demands solid proof before it will undertake a hugely expensive
project like replacing the wiring, which could effectively mean
that an airliner has to be scrapped. A 767 could have 150 miles
Military aircraft are different, the FAA says, because those planes
land and take off in extreme conditions, such as aircraft carriers,
where they are exposed to saltwater and high humidity.
The Swissair crash seems to have been caused by fire and smoke,
probably a result of failed wires. The TWA disaster was the result
of a fuel tank that exploded, possibly ignited by frayed wires.
Could a failure in wiring have caused the destruction of the EgyptAir
flight? Yes, says Block, who now serves on an FAA advisory panel
on aging aircraft and studies crashes for lawyers who sue airlines.
He offers three scenarios for the most recent disaster. A bomb,
which does not seem likely because the plane appeared intact on
radar as it plunged from 33,000 to 19,000 feet. "You also could
have the simultaneous failure of both engines, which has never happened,"
Block says. "Or you could have a wiring-induced shortage of the
autopilot system. Which has happened."
In 1991, an Evergreen Airlines flight from Anchorage to New York
suddenly rolled to the right and dived 10,000 feet before the pilots
regained control and made an emergency landing in Duluth, Minn.
"Spurious" signals to the autopilot caused the plane to dive, according
to the National Transportation Safety Board.
If the autopilot caused the EgyptAir plane to plunge, the pilots
might have tried to right it, and tremendous pressures would have
broken the plane apart at 19,000 feet, Block argues. His theory
remains in the realm of pure speculation.
"At least people are paying attention," Romano says. "Do you know
how many people ignored the Swissair flight because it didn't happen
in the U.S.?"
Four months after the Swissair crash, the government that is supposed
to stand for the Romano family issued a press release.
"New Year's Eve, the FAA statement says that 1998 had been an 'incident-free'
year, no loss of life on American soil or water," Romano says. "Because
my husband's plane, which was filled with Americans, which was built
in America and took off from America, fell out of the sky a few
miles over the border.
"How dare they."
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