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Am I on Crack When It Comes to Flight 447?

That’s what one of my readers wants to know. He made this comment in response to my coverage of the Air France 447 disaster, which questions whether the growing use of composite materials in aircraft construction might have played a role in this and other recent crashes. I think it’s a pretty important subject of inquiry, since more and more of these fiber and resin materials are used in commercial airplanes every year. And apparently a lot of people are as riveted by this subject as I am, since there’s plenty of discussion on the web, and even a larger than usual number of comments on my own posts.

My original long post on this subject inspired one comment from someone who lost a relative on American Airlines Flight 587, also in the Airbus 300 series, which crashed in New York City in 2001 after its composite-made vertical stabilizer detatched in flight–something that might or might not have happened on AF 447. He wonders whether there have been ”instances where a metal vertical stabilizer has broken off the fuselage, in-flight, on large conventional passenger jets.” I don’t know the answer to his question, but I’ve sent it to people more knowledgable than myself, and hope to have a response I can pass on soon.

The rest of the comments on this post (including one from an aircraft engineer and one from an Airbus 330 captain and instructor) accuse me of being irresponsible and inflammatory. One says that I might as well have asked whether aliens shot down AF 447. Another inquired, “Are you on crack?” and then went on to say that “implying that composite parts caused the vertical stabilizer to detach from AF447, and thus doomed the flight, is premature at best, and irresponsible as a whole.”

As someone who has a ticket on an Air France Airbus A340 next month, I sincerely hope they’re right in saying that the composite parts are safe. I agree that it is “premature” to conclude that these parts played a role in the AF 447 and/or AA 587 flights. I also believe it is premature to conclude that they didn’t play any role. And I’d feel a lot better if we knew for sure, before sending any more jetloads of people out over the Atlantic Ocean in these planes.

My posts on this subject are intended to raise questions, not answer them. So far, all anyone has is questions. Even though some 400 pieces of wreckage have now been recovered, French investigators today stated: “We don’t have new specific information that allows us to say this is what happened.” This means that we can’t rule out the possibility that composite parts were a contributory factor, just as we can’t rule out a number of other possible causes.

What concerns me most is what seem to me well-substantiated claims that the composite parts may not have undergone sufficient testing before new aircraft models began flying, and that they now lack effective routine ground testing between flights. These issues were raised by such reliable sources as the New Scientist, which recently published an update on the subject. If nothing else, the AF 447 crash suggests that we ought to take a serious look at the efficacy of testing protocols for composite aircraft construction, especially before the new generation of high-composite planes starts flying.

I’ve also gotten some comments from friends who wonder why I’m writing so much about airplane safety when I’m supposed to be about the politics of aging, from the point of view of an old person. The only age-related reason I can give is that I grew up in an era before there was such a thing as a consumer safety movement, and that I happen to have been a witness (and perhaps even a minor participant) in the birth of this movement.

Back in the mid-1960s, I began reporting on a car called the Chevy Corvair. At the time, the safety problems in that vehicle were being brought to life by an obscure young consumer activist named Ralph Nader. I was widely attacked as an irresponsible alarmist, while the auto industry responded with a blizzard of experts and even put a detective on Nader to try and get something on his personal life to smear him. But Nader perservered, and the questions he raised were taken up first by the late New York Senator Pat Moynihan and later by Bobby Kennedy. This eventually led to the institution of the first auto safety standards.

My response to the experts charging journalists like myself with ignorance and sensationalism is: Answer our questions and respond to the general public, which you serve. The aircraft industry and the airlines would be nowhere without the subsidies we taxpayers fork out through the federal government, and the tickets we buy on these planes. We have every right to ask questions of any conceivable sort, and to expect clear, evidence-based answers. There are always, in such cases, conspiracy theorists who won’t be satisfied by any amount of evidence. I’m not one of them, and neither, I believe, are many of the others who are asking similar questions–and getting a similar mix of (approving and attacking) comments in response.

I would also argue that we also have every reason to be skeptical, knowing how much money the aircraft manufacturers have sunk into the future of composite parts–and also knowing the airlines’ history of putting profits before public safety, and the FAA’s weaknesses in holding them accountable. This was one of the grim lessons people should have learned from 9/11, if they hadn’t learned it already.

It isn’t the public’s job–or mine–to prove that airplanes (or cars, or food additives, or prescription drugs, or any other product upon which our health and safety depend) are not safe. It’s the job of the corporations that make these products to prove to us that they are safe. Right now, I have my doubts about the safety of certain aircraft. I’m waiting–and hoping–to be proved wrong.

JAMES RIDGEWAY can be reached through his blog, The Unsilent Generation.

 

 

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James Ridgeway is an investigative reporter in Washington, DC. He co-edits Solitary Watch.

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