FAA Missed Warning

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Insulation Burn Test

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Concerned Agency Re-evaluates Its Role In Airline Safety

By Don Phillips

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, November 8, 1998; Page A01

Duvon McGuire was a young home-insulation specialist reading through technical documents 10 years ago when something jumped out at him: a description of the test used to determine the flammability of aircraft thermal insulation.

McGuire realized he was no expert in airplanes, but he was convinced that the test being performed was "meaningless," and he fired off a memo saying as much to the group responsible for it. The test involved holding a piece of insulation vertically over a Bunsen burner for 12 seconds and then watching how far the resulting flame traveled and how long it took to extinguish itself. If the fire went out within 15 seconds and the flame spread by less than eight inches, the material was approved for use as aircraft insulation.

In a memo dated March 9, 1988, to a subcommittee of the American Society of Testing and Materials, whose standards are accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies, McGuire wrote that he was "shocked that the test was not more severe." The subcommittee basically ignored McGuire.

And top officials at the FAA were unaware until this year that people -- including some technicians in their own agency -- were growing concerned that insulation could possibly help spread fires inside an aircraft.

A series of events, culminating in the Sept. 2 crash of Swissair Flight 111, which killed 229 people, has propelled the insulation issue out of its obscurity as a medium-priority research project slowly making its way through the sprawling, 48,000-employee agency. The FAA's handling of the insulation issue is a case study of how critical safety issues can remain buried within government institutions, how tight budgets can affect research and how individual crashes and the publicity surrounding them can suddenly reorder the aviation safety agenda. Moreover, it demonstrates how the growth of aviation and its growing complexity have stretched the agency's ability to keep up with emerging safety issues. Air safety officials say it isn't clear if insulation -- which protects airline passengers from the noise and cold of flying at 37,000 feet -- played a role in the Swissair crash. But on Oct. 14, the FAA announced that almost all thermal and sound insulation on 12,000 commercial aircraft worldwide would have to be ripped out and replaced over a period of years at a cost that industry sources say could top $1 billion.

The FAA said it will order the massive overhaul because new tests confirmed the burn test in effect for 23 years is woefully inadequate. In fact, many flammable products apparently would pass the current test. The insulation episode has concerned FAA officials, so much so that they have decided to go back and examine how the 40-year-old agency evaluates potential safety hazards. They will focus especially on being certain that sensitive safety issues are brought to the top of the agency.

"I want to be more sure than I am today that we have a process where people are comfortable enough to bring things forward," FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said.

"We're revisiting the issue of what our real job is," said Thomas McSweeny, the FAA's new associate administrator for regulation and certification. "Our real job is preventing accidents."

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Sunday November 8 1:17 AM ET

FAA Missed Warning On Insulation Burn Test - Report

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration missed a

warning 10 years ago that a test used to determine the

flammability of aircraft thermal insulation was not tough enough, the

Washington Post reported Sunday.

Following the Sept. 2 crash of Swissair Flight 111, which killed 229

people, the FAA last month ordered the upgrade of cabin

insulation in thousands of airliners after tests showed many current

types would fail a new fire test.

Airlines and plane makers are being urged by the FAA to either take

advantage of safer materials during manufacture or to

replace the insulation mats during scheduled maintenance, ahead of

mandatory rules it plans to issue.

Although no burned insulation has been recovered from the Swissair wreck

off the coast of Canada, the FAA suspects it may

have played a role in spreading fire through the cockpit.

The Washington Post reported that Duvon McQuire, a young home-insulation

specialist, sent a memorandum to a subcommittee of

the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), whose standards

are accepted by the FAA, on March 9, 1988, calling a

flammability test for airline insulation ``meaningless.''

The ASTM subcommittee ignored the warning, and top FAA officials were

unaware until this year that even some FAA

technicians were growing concerned that insulation could possibly help

spread fires inside an aircraft.

The test that McQuire questioned involved holding a piece of insulation

vertically over a Bunsen burner for 12 seconds and then

watching how far the resulting flame traveled and how long it took to

extinguish itself. If the fire went out within 15 seconds and

the flame spread by less than eight inches, the material was approved

for use as aircraft insulation.

The Washington Post said the insulation episode has prompted FAA

officials to re-examine how the agency evaluates potential

safety hazards, with a particular focus on ensuring that sensitive

safety issues are brought to the top.

``I want to be more sure than I am today that we have a process where

people are comfortable enough to bring things forward,'' it

quoted FAA Administrator Jane Garvey as saying.

Plans were under way for information-sharing programs, including one in

which a mass of information from aircraft flight data

recorders would be crunched through computers to look for patterns that

could spot problems before they occur.

The flammability standard for aircraft insulation set by the ASTM dates

to 1975. The ASTM is a technical organization that

develops and publishes thousands of testing standards for industry, on

materials and products ranging from ceramics to wood.

McGuire, who is now self-employed, served on a subcommittee that

evaluated the insulation flammability test and voted against it

because he felt nearly any material would pass it.

But he told the Post that under a ``gentleman's agreement'' with the

subcommittee, he withdrew his negative vote in exchange for

a promise that the subcommittee would revisit the issue, something that

never happened.

A series of fires aboard jetliners culminating with the Swissair crash

prompted the FAA last month to raise standards for

insulation. Instead of passing a fire-spread test, insulation will have

to pass a much tougher burn-through test.

 

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