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The Burnelli Conspiracy is but the tip of the Iceberg
(Danger Aloft ... Continued)
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Wall Street Journal header
Thursday, November 1, 1979

Danger Aloft

... Continued

Things still go wrong. Last year, a malfunction due to corrosion in the landing gear of a United Airlines DC8 so distracted the crew that the plane ran out of fuel and crashed near Portland, Ore. That accident killed 10 and seriously injured 23.

Landing-gear tires have long been a special problem. The nylon used in the tires' basic structure loses its strength at high temperatures, and then a tire can blow out. Unfortunately, airliners often build up high temperatures in tires by taxiing long distances and by taxiing fast. If the tires are slightly underinflated-and airlines sometimes keep them that way to protect them from foreign objects on runways--the fast rolling tires are heated up still further[9]

9. Did the tires on TWA Flight 800 overheat during taxiing? Did they blow-up on take-off?

 

10. Now Boeing wants to build the 747-500 and the -600 respectively carrying nearly 500 and 600 people. Doesn't that mean the weight of both of these aircraft will be significantly higher than that of the 747-400? Are they adding redundant landing-gears on these aircraft? If they are, what have they done to increase the strength of the cabin structure?

Blowouts Common

And because of heat and other stresses, tire blowouts are fairly common. Usually, they don't lead to fatal consequences. In June, for instance, an Air France Concorde supersonic jet blew some tires as it took off from Washington's Dulles Airport. After the Dulles runway was covered with a fire-preventing foam and the Concord dumped most of its fuel, the plane landed safely on its remaining tires.

But the coming of the big, heavy, wide-body jets--the Boeing 747, the Lockheed L-1011 and the McDonnell Douglas DC10--has exacerbated tire problems. [10] In the mid-1970s, "a series of accidents" stemming from tire failures in wide-body jets began, the FAA found. The agency ordered a step-up in its surveillance of tires and started an investigation into the cause of the blowouts. "it was determined that the advent of large wide-body type aircraft designed with complex landing-gear systems (and) their unprecedented high operating gross weights ... were among the significant factors in the tire failures." The FAA says.

Aircraft builders also have been getting worried about the wide-body tire problem. They have asked tire makers for a material unaffected by high temperatures. In response, says Robert Rothl, chief design engineer for hydromechanical systems at the Douglas Aircraft unit of McDonnell Douglas, tire producers suggested a new fiber. But, he adds, it didn't work. "It didn't like the compression at all (and tires must withstand lots of compression). And they couldn't find any adhesive that would cement the stuff together to give you a good bond between the various plies."

Unencouraging Replies

McDonnell Douglas also sent out a "Heavy Duty Tire Specification" for tougher tires made of any sort of material. "We sent that tire "spec" out to some 17 different tire manufacturers throughout the world, U.S. and U.S. and Europe," Mr. Rothl says. "The replies we got back were all very negative. We were informed by the tire manufacturers that it would be almost impossible to design an d build" such a tire. Major tire makers declined to comment.

While the manufacturers were having difficulty trying to improve tires, Capt. Hersche was taking the DC10's controls for his last flight. The pilot faced more than his share of hurdles that day. Heavily loaded with passengers and fuel for the long trip to Honolulu, the plane was very close to its maximum gross weight of 430,000 pounds. A heavy load would make stopping the big plane on the runway difficult in case the takeoff had to be aborted. With the runways at Los Angeles International wet from rain, braking effectiveness was reduced, and thus the plane would be still harder to stop.

At a hearing subsequently convened by the National Transportation Safety Board, Gene Hersche and his copilot, Michael Provan, told what happened:

Gene Hersche: "We were cleared for takeoff ... and we started a takeoff roll which would use every bit of the runway."

Mike Provan: "Acceleration was good. It is a big, overpowered airplane--that is the feeling I have always had taking this thing off."

torn tires on PanAm DC10 FL#99, Sep 1980

Critical Moment

As the plane sped down the runway, it reached nearly 156 knots. That was the most critical moment because it was the "V1" speed, the speed at which the p8ilot must decide to either continue to take off, or abort. At that moment, the first of four tires on the left landing gear blew. Apparently over-loaded, a second tire blew. As the bare wheels rolled on the ground, one shattered, the fragments puncturing a third tire. With the plane leaning to the left, Mr. Hersche chose to abort -- reversing engines and stepping on the brakes. AT first, he thought he could stop the plane in time. But then it began to vibrate.

Gene Hersche: "The vibration was increasing very, very much. I mean it was just getting wild. In fact, I didn't feel like I was even sitting gin the seat -- I was being bounced off it."

Mike Provan: Vibration "got violent ... The (steering) yoke is out of my grasp and I was thrashing around like I couldn't -- I had to clutch myself in because I was flailing against the seat."

Gene Hersche: "With this vibration, it seemed like we just started floating, and nothing was stopping us."

Braking Problem

With three out of four tires on the left landing gear gone and on a wet runway, the DC10 had lost much of its braking power. The 218-ton airplane was hurtling toward the end of the runway, and a parking lot full of cars beyond, at nearly 80 miles an hour.

Mike Provan: "I am watching, I am talking him through this darn thing ... 'Fight, fight, Gene, stay there ...' I kept telling him, 'Cars coming ...' He is on the brakes and reverse. We are vibrating - banging, ganging, banging -- all of a sudden (as the jet rolls off the runway and the left landing gear collapses), this sudden swerve over to the left, down on the left side. We stopped."

The plane stopped short of the parking lot. But the landing gear, as it collapsed, ruptured fuel tanks in the left wing.[11] Fire broke out on the plane's left side. Flight attendants opened door s on the right, inflated slides to the ground and began herding passengers to the slides. But with the planes canted to the left, the slides from the right side were steep. Passengers were frightened.

11. Ever wondered how long a car manufacturer would be in business if he built cars whose axle, fuel tank and engine was attached in such a way that in the event of a crash, either the axle or the engine (or both) would puncture the fuel tank?

Janna Harkrider, flight attendant: "It was very steep at that point, and the people were old, and ... I saw a pair of plaid pants standing at the door, and I told him to go ... and I was getting more people up to go and I turned around and he was still there, and I said, 'I said go, goddamn, I mean go, the plane is on fire and I want you to go,' and pushed him out."

Hesitating Passengers

Judy Blair, flight attendant: "I started screaming for the people to get out, and there was a slight reluctance ... And I just started kicking and shoving and hitting and screaming as loud as I could scream ... trying to impress for them to move faster, because I could see the fire coming closer and closer."

But some passengers were caught by the fire anyway.

John Woodman, flight attendant: "The passenger started sliding down the fuselage and off the end of the wing. As soon as he hit the ground, he was on fire. He cam towards me and either fell or I threw him down, but I was yelling at him to roll over and -- it was a quagmire, like I was in a foot of dirt or silt or mud -- and I was grabbing handfuls of mud and throwing it on him, trying to extinguish the fire."

12. Can you imagine cars being that flammable? Would we have fire-stations every few miles?

An airport fireman had heard the plane's tires blowing, and his fire truck was rolling even before the jet went off the runway. The truck arrived at the plane only seconds after the plane had come to a halt, and the truck immediately began spraying foam , which drove back the flames. That fast action saved lives, the Safety Board said.[12]

FAA Proposal

In the aftermath of the Continental accident, the FAA has proposed that all planes be equipped with tougher tires --- not as tough as McDonnell Douglas had originally sought, but still with 61% more load-bearing ability. Even that, it's said, isn't easy.

McDonnell Douglas also is developing wheels that won't shatter after a blowout and thus won't hurl fragments out to puncture other tires and reduce braking power. And the company is working on new landing-gear parts designed so that if a gear should fall as the Continental DC10's did, it will collapse without puncturing a fuel tank.[13]

But meanwhile, there are still close calls. A few months ago, a Philippine Airlines DC10 blew all four tires on the left landing gear as the plane was taking off from Guam. The pilot aborted and managed to halt the plane safely. A vacationing American physician was on board. "I was never so frightened in all my life," he says.[]

13. You should ask them whether they've succeeded or not. Remember, this article was written in 1979! NOTE: When they answer you: is it a simple and straightforward 'YES' or is it a lot of round-about statements trying to imply a yes but really isn't?

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