FAA Missed Warning
Insulation Burn Test
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
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.