A Dangerous Aircraft Wiring Product implicated in aircraft electrical fires.



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Last Updated: 8 March 2008

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Full Transcript Fire in the Sky

Reporter: Ross Coulthart

ROSS COULTHART, REPORTER: The modern passenger jet is truly one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century. Most of us take it for granted that these leviathans the size of office towers soar at nearly a thousand kilometres an hour, 12km above the earth - carrying hundreds of passengers and cargo to ports around the world.

It is also one of the safest ways to travel. The latest figures show that across Australia in 1997 there were no accidents in 730,000 hours of flying by large passenger planes. That's a level of safety in which the aviation industry can take considerable pride. Sydneysider Max Predeth and his wife Marge both worked in the industry and now, in retirement, they still enjoy watching the big jets leave Sydney Airport.

MAX PREDETH: We sort of watch the plane and it goes out we just look at each other after 11 minutes.

REPORTER: You hold your breath?


REPORTER: Nearly three years ago they were hit by a tragedy that forced them to confront another less known fact about the international aviation industry - that people die and get injured on commercial aircraft every year in accidents that could have been prevented. Eleven minutes into the flight of TWA Flight 800 from JFK International Airport in New York, on a warm clear July night in 1996, the 747 suddenly disappeared from controllers' radar screens. 230 people died, including Marge Predeth's sister, Vera Feeney, who was taking her 17-year-old daughter Deirdre to Paris, as a graduation present.

PREDETH: And we were watching on the news broadcasts and I always remember seeing the burning wreckage on the sea and saying to Margy I don't think anyone's going to survive from that. Those poor people.

REPORTER: And then sadly you found out

PREDETH: And then the next morning, 12 hours later, we got the phone call from Ireland to say that they were on the plane.

REPORTER: Investigators have yet to piece together what downed Flight 800 but they admit they're focusing on one major suspect - a catastrophic short-circuit in the hundreds of kilometres of wiring that power the aircraft. A fatal arc.

What angers the Predeth family - and should concern anyone who flies - is that it is now emerging that experts have repeatedly warned about the dangers of one type of wiring on TWA 800 for more than a decade but the safety regulators chose not to act.

BILL HOGAN: Well in the worst case, it can cause fatal crashes - I mean there's no question about that. We have some incidents in the past in the military where this type of wire is cited as a probable cause of crashes that killed people.

REPORTER: The designers of the 747 jet originally intended it to have a limited life-span of about 60,000 hours. Across the world, hundreds of jumbos that have exceeded that limit are still flying. In October last year, in a major back-flip on its previous assertions that wiring was not a problem, the world's most influential air safety body - the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) - announced it's developing plans to improve procedures for inspections of the wiring on commercial aircraft. Vernon Grose is a former board member on the National Transportation Safety Board, America's air accident investigation body. He's an outspoken critic of the FAA, accusing the safety regulators and the industry of having a blind-spot with aircraft wiring.

VERNON GROSE, FORMER US NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MEMBER: One of the problems is that once it's in there it's just out of sight, out of mind.

REPORTER: Now, historically, has any attention been given to the idea of monitoring wiring in an aircraft before now?

GROSE: It really hasn't been and that's a thing of great concern to me.

ED BLOCK, FORMER US DEFENCE DEPARTMENT EXPERT: Ninety percent of the aircraft wiring out there is not only suspect but proven to be faulty.

REPORTER: Ed Block used to be the US Defence Department's top expert on aircraft wiring, and only recently was appointed to the FAA taskforce that's assessing wiring problems in old planes. He says the FAA's response is too little too late. Block claims aircraft manufacturers never even considered what happens when bundled wires age and chaff.

BLOCK: Imagine on an aircraft where there's a bundle of wires in close proximity and due to age, vibration, you have some of the insulation removed. The amount of energy available there for that momentary contact of metal to metal conductors touching in those two wires is incredible. And you can see it can not only ignite inflammable material, it can cause all kinds of power surges on equipment. You're making a mini lightning bolt.

REPORTER: And as happened to this Federal Express jet in New York two years ago - smoke and fire on a flight is terrifying especially because there's so little those on board can do about it.

REPORTER: It took 18 minutes for the burning plane - a DC10 - to get down from 33,000 feet to Stewart Airport in New York.

The five crew members only just made it - the jet was completely destroyed. Investigators still haven't discovered what caused the fire - and although extreme, this is not an isolated instance. The FAA's own records show incidents of unexplained smoke in the cabin or cockpit have led to an unscheduled landing of a commercial airliner in the United States at least once a week.

Here in Australia, the thousands of passengers who fly or out of major airports like Sydney every day can take some solace from the fact that our domestic passenger airliners are extremely safe. But even here the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation's own database records at least 30 unexplained instances of smoke or fumes on large commercial airliners in the last 10 years, many of which forced the planes to call an emergency and land. The obvious concern is - was the cause of those still unexplained incidents the wiring?

TOLLER: If you start talking as you're talking about the really major concerns. They are major concerns. You have to be very careful not to be too precipitous and not to act too quickly. You've got to really make sure that the evidence is there because the implications of what you might have to do to the aircraft fleets of the world are enormous.

REPORTER: Mick Toller heads Australia's air safety regulator, CASA: the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. As you'll see though, the dilemma is that the body with most influence over Australian initiatives on air safety is not CASA but America's FAA and the airline manufacturers themselves.

Doesn't it make you just a little bit concerned that they are themselves so influenced by concerns other than the primacy of passenger safety?

TOLLER: At the end of the day, bringing an airliner into Australia, buying an airliner, you've got to be dependent on the expertise that is over there - the expertise that's both with manufacturers and the safety authorities.

REPORTER: But increasingly, it's those same American safety regulators that many experts claim are excessively influenced by the aviation industry. Vernon Grose is one of America's most respected risk management specialists - he's advised NASA on the space program. He's investigated air accidents from the inside for the National Transportation Safety Board. He's not known for rash comments but he's very worried that America's FAA and NTSB are not looking closely enough at the mounting numbers of those unexplained incidents involving smoke on passenger aircraft.

VERNON GROSE: Over the years they can say 'Well, where are the accidents where wiring was a factor?'. Well they don't count the things that should be [counted]. For example when you have an emergency landing due to smoke in the cockpit, a lot of those should be traced to wiring but don't get classified that way.

REPORTER: Why not?

GROSE: Well because it's again, I think, a political issue to some extent. They don't want to look that far, you see, to find out that it's wiring.

REPORTER: Or more accurately - the insulation that covers wiring in modern aircraft. This is what a lot of the concern is all about - it's a product called Kapton, the trade name for the thin coating of insulation on this wire made by Du Pont - known chemically as aromatic polyamide film. Even hairline cracks in this wire can, under certain conditions, have frightening results. In this test the cracked wire was exposed to the sort of moist and salty conditions many jet aircraft experience.

Kapton wire can be found in about half of the world's passenger jets, including many planes operated by Australia's Qantas and Ansett. Both airlines told Sunday they have stopped using Kapton wire when they replace wiring in their aircraft. And both say they've never had an incident on one of their aircraft involving the arcing of Kapton wire.

The Seattle-based Boeing Corporation maintains Kapton and other insulation like it is safe. It told Sunday in this statement that it began phasing out the installation of Kapton in the pressurised zone on 747s and 767s in 1991. McDonnell Douglas started phasing it out on their planes in 1995. Boeing admit that the wire they're now using - TKT - was developed to address US military concerns about Kapton.

But while the manufacturers and the airlines downplay the problem, the dilemma for safety regulators is that they admit they don't even have the technical know-how to even predict when this wiring could become a problem.

BLOCK: As of October 1, the FAA announced that there was currently no means available to discern a catastrophic failure of wire in advance of the accident investigation. That leads us to the NTSB who do the post-crash. The post-crash investigators rely on what's called the Party system. There are designated engineering reps from the actual aircraft manufacturers that they're supposedly objectively looking at the evidence.

REPORTER: So we just have to trust the manufacturers to own up if they find a bit of dud wiring?

BLOCK: Right, and in a sense you're asking this objector to put away his retirement stock portfolio and to be just totally independent and to be working for the US taxpayers at that moment.

REPORTER: What's extraordinary about this debate is that while about half of the world's passenger jets are still loomed with Kapton wire, the US military has actually stopped putting Kapton in new aircraft and is removing it from many of its planes - including the US president's own plane, Air Force One. As long ago as the early 1980s the US Navy did its own research to see just how destructive Kapton can be.

In October, the man who did these tests for the Navy, retired officer Bob Dunham, went public on US television to reveal how he tried to warn the Federal Aviation Administration about the danger he saw in Kapton.

{FILE FOOTAGE DUNHAM: What we really wanted the FAA to do was to put out an air directive saying 'You've got to look at Kapton. It's dangerous. You have to do certain things to it. You've got to redouble your efforts when the aircraft comes in for inspection'. 20-20 reporter: You wanted this in 198? Dunham: This was probably 85, 86 - no later than that. 20-20 reporter: 12 years ago? Dunham: Yes. 20-20 reporter: And was there ever such a directive? Dunham: I never saw it. END FILE FOOTAGE}

REPORTER: Former Defence Department wiring guru Ed Block told us he also voiced his concerns to his bosses in the 1980s after seeing repeated military reports about wiring problems in aircraft.

BLOCK: I was privy to all the inside information in regards to unsatisfactory reports and alerts about different insulation types of wire. And in 1978 there was a speed letter that came out from the Navy saying that the type of wiring that was on TWA 800 was found to prematurely age in a laboratory and to cause radial cracking and they wanted it purged from the inventory.

REPORTER: The military discovered the problem wasn't just with Kapton insulation. In 1983 the US Navy raised safety concerns about a similar brand of aircraft wire insulation called Poly-X. It asked for an extra 360 million US dollars to rewire its F14s because 150 of them - the bulk of them wired with Poly-X.- had crashed. The official line from the FAA in Washington is that the problems the military has had with Kapton can't be compared with commercial aircraft - as its director of aircraft certification, Tom McSweeney, told American ABC News.

{FILE FOOTAGE EX ABC AMERICA: McSweeney: They have a very unique environment. We just have not seen data that shows that same condition exists in civil aircraft. END FILE FOOTAGE}

BILL HOGAN: The data are in the worst case crashes like this that kill people. And in other cases forced emergency landings of aircraft. That's all there for anyone who wants to find.

REPORTER: Bill Hogan is head investigator for the Washington DC-based Center for Public Integrity - it's a non-profit investigative lobby group that recently published a major report on the politics of airline safety. His group combed through thousands of pages of FAA and military reports obtained under Freedom of Information laws. Hogan contends the government's own data gives the lie to distinctions between the military's problems with wiring and commercial planes.

HOGAN: There is a difference of course, any sensible person says there is a difference. Do you ignore the military's experience because of that? No! One of the fatal crashes in the US Airforce, Officer Ted Harnival. This was a plane that I think had been in the air only for like 70 hours - its total flight time. This was not an ageing aircraft. This was not an aircraft flown in the trying conditions of an aircraft carrier over and over and over again.

REPORTER: And was his accident attributed to faulty wiring?


REPORTER: If anything, Ed Block argues, the problems the US military encountered with Kapton and other wires could become more acute in commercial planes because passenger jets have a far longer shelf life.

BLOCK: The military wires which, like I said, are used as prototypes for the ultimate use in the commercial realm are rated at 10,000 hours. That is their sole reason for being and for lasting. So they test for 10,000 hours. The commercial realm is using them up to 93,000 hours, the same wires.

REPORTER: And even some commercial airlines are voting with their feet. As early as 1977, TWA, a commercial airline, not the military, told Boeing it didn't want Kapton in its new passenger jets. As well, United Airlines recently admitted it too became so concerned about Kapton that it demanded Boeing install different wiring before buying new jets in 1989.

But Kapton's manufacturer Du Pont says it knows of no aircraft accident which, on analysis, has been linked to Kapton.

In 1990, a Kapton-wired 737 caught fire on the ground in the Philippines. Eight people died and the plane was a wreck. America's air accident investigators urged the FAA to order an immediate inspection of all 737s because they discovered cracked and damaged wires in the centre fuel tank. But, incredibly, the FAA failed to demand those inspections until last year - eight years later - and only because more problems were found in other 737s.

REPORTER: As you'll see in part two of our story, this is not the last aircraft tragedy where wiring is now a suspect.

HOGAN: The FAA is still in a state of denial and it can't adequately grapple with this issue until it says yes, there is a problem. These are easy words for somebody at the FAA to utter and in fact they are truthful words but they've not yet been able to do it.

REPORTER: Ten years ago Kevin Campbell had a passion. He and his son Lee would buy British sports cars from around the world, bringing them back to Wellington in New Zealand to be lovingly restored. The father and son loved and understood high-performance machinery.

KEVIN CAMPBELL: I have always restored cars. I have a pretty good idea of how things work.

REPORTER: But almost exactly 10 years ago today, on February 24, 1989, Kevin Campbell lost his passion. That was the day his son Lee died.

CAMPBELL: We're always thinking of Lee. He's never out of our thoughts. We really miss him. We wonder what might have been.

REPORTER: Fifteen minutes out of Honolulu, United Airlines Flight 811 was cruising at 23,000 feet over the Pacific. Without warning, the plane's forward cargo door blew open, right under Lee's business class seat. The pressurised cabin exploded - a tray hacking into a wall. The man who sat there was dragged out over the bending arm. And this was Lee's seat - he and nine other passengers were sucked out to their deaths.

CAMPBELL: Lee was probably the last to leave the aircraft because he actually had floor underneath him and a bit of fuselage beside him but his seat failed and he went out.

REPORTER: Kevin and his wife Susan decided they had to find out for themselves just why their son had died. They went to America and they were the only next of kin to sit through the entire investigation hearing.

CAMPBELL: We knew that we couldn't rely on the government agencies to investigate it. So it was just an immediate decision that we would do everything that we could to find out what happened ourselves.

REPORTER: Initially the National Transportation Safety Board - the NTSB - ruled the airline and the ground crew were at fault supposedly for failing to repair a door latch and for failing to lock it properly. But Kevin's mechanical knowledge and the evidence he'd heard from the experts testifying in Seattle made him doubt what hundreds of experts had agreed on as the cause. He believed the cargo door had opened because of an electrical fault in the wiring inside the door.

CAMPBELL: It got a short. And it was told to open the door at 22,000 feet which it promptly did.

REPORTER: And why do you think it shorted?

CAMPBELL: Obviously the wiring. It got a short somewhere in the wiring and it just continued to open it.

REPORTER: To prove his argument Kevin even designed a replica of one of the eight locks that held the cargo door in place.

CAMPBELL: It's supposed to hold them in that position, if by any chance there's an electrical short and they try and turn. But on 811 they were actually made of aluminium and what happened when they got the short it simply got the electrical signal to start these locks opening. It just bent them around out of the way

REPORTER: Because the aluminium was so flexible?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, there was just no strength.

REPORTER: Now you figured this out yourself?


REPORTER: And you made this to show the NTSB what you were talking about?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, it didn't seem to do much good though I am afraid.

REPORTER: Because the cargo door was still at the bottom of the Pacific, Kevin Campbell couldn't prove his theory. That was, until 1991, when another cargo door popped open on yet another United Airlines 747, at New York's Kennedy Airport. This time investigators realised that chaffing in the wires had caused a stray electrical signal that opened the door. Investigators now knew Campbell just might be right. At huge cost a Navy unmanned submarine retrieved the door from five kilometres down. Within hours, the NTSB confirmed that Kevin Campbell had probably been right all along.

CAMPBELL: It was obvious as soon as it broke the surface that we were right. They rang us from Washington and said they had a contingency plan. That when they recovered the door, if their theory was correct they were releasing it to the media in Hawaii. And if the Campbells were correct the door was going to Boeing He said the door was going to Boeing!

REPORTER: The NTSB's revised report finally conceded the cargo door probably opened because of a fault in a switch or wiring. It found the insulation on the wiring in the door was cracked and those cracks 'could have allowed short circuiting to power the latch actuator'. However it was impossible to be conclusive whether arcing had occurred because "all of the wires were not recovered and tests showed that arcing evidence may not be detectable".

So you'll never be able to say for sure that it was that particular wiring chaffing and exploding causing the problem?

CAMPBELL: Not on 811. No. Because they didn't recover it. But the other one that had problems at JFK the wiring was burned and blackened.

REPORTER: In May 1996 Valujet 592, a DC9 passenger jet, took off from Miami. Soon after takeoff one of the pilots sent a tense message to the Miami tower, requesting an emergency landing. The plane was on fire. Four minutes later he and 109 other passengers were dead. The American crash investigators found that what set the Valujet plane on fire was illegally stowed oxygen bottles that somehow leaked and ignited. But there's growing concern that the NTSB got it wrong. That what brought 592 down into a Florida swamp was faulty wiring.

GROSE: I really think they made a bad error in that case.

REPORTER: Now why do you say that?

GROSE: Because they refused first of all to introduce into the record the electrical history of the aircraft that crashed and if they had done so they would have shown that on the very day of the crash in Atlanta, that aircraft was taxiing out from the air terminal and broke two circuit breakers.

REPORTER: The jet popped its circuit breakers three more times before it landed in Miami. But the NTSB's official finding for the cause of the crash was that one of the oxygen bottles being illegally carried on the plane somehow pulled its pin and leaked into the cargo bay. This former NTSB board-member says such a finding begs a further explanation that the NTSB doesn't want to contemplate.

GROSE: It needs an ignition source and I never have bought the fact that the ox bottles were an ignition source. I think there was wiring in that aircraft that was arcing somewhere and produced the fire that produced the smoke.

REPORTER: But how to prove it. The government regulators and the airlines maintain the only substantive evidence of arcing has come from military planes. As Qantas told us in a written statement "the naval military environment is more corrosive and demanding than that experienced by commercial aircraft". But there have been Kapton arcing incidents on commercial planes. And when the FAA ordered last year's inspection of Boeing 737s, of the 500 inspected in the US, half had chaffed wires in their fuel tanks, 10 had bare wires. Could it be that the FAA just hasn't been looking hard enough for the evidence?

Armin Bruning is one of America's most respected aviation wiring experts outside of the US military or the airline manufacturers. He has repeatedly offered to test commercial planes but he told Sunday how his offer was nobbled.

ARMIN BRUNING: I was offered about six months or a year ago an opportunity to make arrangements to take specimens from commercial aircraft. Several days before we were to depart to take those specimens, permission was withdrawn for that particular sample taking process.

REPORTER: Do you know why?

BRUNING: I do not know for a fact what went on. But because there was an interaction between the government agencies and the commercial groups I suspect that the people involved would have been one or the other party would have been in a compromising situation. The party who objected was in a position such that they felt it would have done grievous harm to the industry and perhaps to the safety of the travelling public.

REPORTER: The irony is that while commercial airline passengers have been denied the benefits of Mr Bruning's independent expertise, he was involved in tests that recently helped Australia's airforce plan the replacement of wiring in our P3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft.

BRUNING: Your people in fact stayed very close to the program. That work, which was funded by the US Navy, identified particular locations where the wire had degraded sufficiently so that the US Navy selectively replaced wiring in a combination of economy and increase of safety. And I believe the practices are being reflected in the use on your P3s.

REPORTER: Meanwhile, the death toll goes on. On September the 2nd last year, Swiss Air Flight 111 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia killing all 229 people aboard. The cause of this crash is still being determined. But in its wake, authorities ordered urgent inspections of the overhead cockpit wiring in all MD-11 aircraft because they'd found damaged wires entering overhead circuit breakers in wreckage hauled up from the crash scene. Investigators admit they've found evidence of electrical arcing on the Kapton wire that's loomed extensively through this type of jet. In a tragedy uncannily similar to so many before, the crew of the stricken Swiss Air jet reported smoke in the cockpit 16 minutes before the crash. One possible explanation being investigated is whether damaged wires caused a short circuit, popping the jet's circuit breakers. As Ed Block explains, pushing those circuit breakers back in might have had catastrophic results.

BLOCK: Sadly the normal procedure for finding smoke in the cockpit is to get down to a level that you can open the side window and evacuate the smoke. It's kind of like a cave man rudimentary type of procedure where there's no sophisticated way of doing it. That's the process. Once you get down and supposedly clear the smoke you then want to try to identify where the smoke's coming from. You have a three way switch that you go through each circuit and isolate it and hopefully find where it's coming from. By re-igniting that circuit, he's now putting energy back into that prepared Kapton wire bundle, which once it becomes charred is then conductive. It can actually act as a dynamite in a sense in that it becomes like fuel for the fire.

REPORTER: The makers of Kapton, Du Pont, say on their website that they "know of no aircraft accident, which, upon analysis, has been linked to Kapton".

As recently as January 9 this year, a United Airlines 767 flying from Zurich to Washington was forced to make an emergency landing at Heathrow because of a fire in wiring, including Kapton wiring. British investigators are still assessing whether it was an arc in chaffed or damaged wiring that caused the fire. Both Qantas and Ansett have assured Sunday they're monitoring these overseas studies closely and they'll follow any Airworthiness Directives issued by the American FAA. But is that enough?

What would you say to the people responsible for air safety in Australia who are following the lead of the FAA?

HOGAN: Certainly, they should do that, but surely they should realise that the FAA on many critical safety issues is way, way, way behind. That simple. The FAA does not want to, has not been interested in, getting to the bottom of this.

REPORTER: If the expert critics are right. If the wiring on commercial planes is potentially as much of a problem as it is on military planes then it's a catastrophe for the airline business because replacing that wiring is just too expensive an option. It's probably cheaper to buy a completely new jet than to attempt to re-wire an old one. And even if it is proven to the satisfaction of the FAA that wiring is a safety problem then it has to decide if the billions of dollars that would have to be spent on new aircraft is an affordable safety expense that the travelling public and the industry should have to bare.

The commercial aviation industry is a formidable lobby. Bill Hogan's research revealed that in the 10 years to 1997 that lobby donated 44 million US dollars to congressional campaigns. Eleven of the top 25 recipients in the House of Representatives are on committees that directly oversee the industry. This US Defence Department email details how Du Pont was lobbying in Congress to stop the Navy from banning Kapton on its planes.

"There is a lot of politics surrounding this issue with heavy hitters from Du Pont weighing in in Washington."

REPORTER: If you were an Australian safety regulator what would you be doing - or if you were hired by the Australian government - what would you be advising them?

GROSS: Well, I would be advising first of all, do some tests that hadn't been done by the FAA. They seem to resist, the idea of testing under realistic conditions what wiring will do. They just recently, within the last month or two, had looked at five old aircraft, one of them was an air freight for goodness sake and they found all kinds of anomalies in that aircraft and that alerted them that they'd better start looking at the aging effects of wiring.

REPORTER: Australia's air safety investigation body, BASI, does have an excellent reputation and so do our domestic airlines. But the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's Mick Toller admits Australia just doesn't have the resources to do its own investigations into wiring. We'll have to wait and see what the overseas investigations determine.

TOLLER: We're very much aware of the fact that, as a result of certain accidents, people have made suggestions that wiring may be one of the elements. What we've got at the moment though as far as I can see is nothing that points an absolute definite finger in any direction but there are just concerns being raised which means people will continue to look and continue to take it seriously.

REPORTER: Ten years from the day that his son Lee died on United Flight 811, Kevin Campbell is preparing to sell the last of the sports cars he and his son used to enjoy restoring. It's time to move on. For Kevin, proving to the experts what really killed his son was one way of coming to terms with the pain of his loss. His mechanical aptitude helped him see what a legion of investigators had missed. With mounting evidence suggesting that wiring might be the smoking gun in many recent tragedies, all the loved ones of those who were lost demand is that it never be allowed to happen again.

CAMPBELL: It's something you don't want to think about isn't it. United carried 568 million people safely and Lee got on the plane and was killed. The odds are tremendous against anything happening but anything that can be done to make it safer, I feel, has got to be done.


Copyright 1997/1998 ninemsn Pty Limited. All Rights Reserved.



Alex PATERSON is an Australian airline pilot by profession. He writes articles and advises on issues pertaining to aviation, politics, sociology, the environment, sustainable farming, history, computers, natural health therapies and spirituality.

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