The questions airlines should have been asking but didn’t ask following the 2001 MD-11 crash

By Daniel Wagner

Think this story will make news? It got as much news as any plane crash ever did, even though there was little risk that we would learn anything new about the mechanisms that caused two separate plane crashes.

That’s in part because much of what we knew already had to do with crashes involving Boeing and its business partner, General Electric.

In 2014, a private jet flying within the Southern California area crash-landed at one of the Long Beach Airport’s runways.

Then earlier this year, when Boeing 787 Dreamliners were catching the headlines after a fire on a parked airplane, there were unsettling questions about what GE had done with the kinds of engines it sold to the plane-maker.

“The plane had been intentionally modified, to the point that it was more likely to be at risk for fire than some engine variants from Pratt & Whitney,” a different blog initially reported.

It was later revealed that most of the Dreamliners sold by GE, which makes the engines that go into the Boeing’s 787 and GE-powered Delta jets, had not received maintenance of the kind that would have uncovered potential electrical and hydraulic issues.

Many Wall Street analysts who cover GE weren’t willing to blame GE for the 787 fires. In fact, while some analysts appeared to put their focus on Boeing for the press coverage, others were quick to point out that the cause of the problems had to do with GE’s failures.

“The big cause of the problem for the 787 is GE and the whole near silence around it,” Michael Derchin, an analyst at CRT Capital Group, wrote in an email at the time.

Yet GE didn’t issue an alarm in public. Instead, it was in partnership with Boeing on its explanations of the problems.

The issue may be at fault or not, but it did highlight how much attention the aviation industry puts on details related to design and build.

Investors in GE and Boeing, and the people who write reports and form opinions about the industry, can’t completely ignore details when they might seem insignificant. That’s the lesson of a series of major plane crashes that happened across the globe in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

The two crashes, in particular, brought the flaws of flaws found in a wide variety of parts into sharp focus.

For starters, it was proved in that first crash of an MD-11 that a cockpit flap on the aircraft didn’t work. Essentially, it allowed wind to make contact with the tail, causing a massive turbo-propeller boom and a loss of airspeed.

Or, more recently, it was found that an engine on the European Airways Airbus A380, which had an under-skin air filter, that can leak oil. And it’s this nozzle problem that has caused many of the recent problems with the 787.

“Passengers can be forgiven for asking, ‘Is it worth the cost?'” wrote Andrew Kress, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, who was part of the ALPA investigative team in the first crash of the MD-11.

The United Airline crash, in 2001, also came to the U.S. media. It was an utterly bizarre plot cooked up by a hijacked pilot and his drug-dealing accomplices to try to kill their employer.

The plot turned deadly when the hijacked plane crashed into a Texas field, but not before the dastardly pilot had another idea: To dangle an oversize number that read “5048A” from a crane supporting one of the plane’s wings.

Having witnessed this bad plan, a spokesman for one of the United airlines’ main unions, James Boyle, said at the time: “No doubt, we’ll always suspect the same thing that happened here may have happened to some others.”

So, on the plane crash front, is the lesson that airplane design flaws remain a focus for story-makers?

Since then, we’ve seen many of the same kinds of flaws get revealed.

Crash-test dummies, generators made from ancient-looking designs from the 1970s and mechanical components that have a risk of overheating have all been targets.

In the world of law enforcement, it’s been revealed that there’s a problem with trigger mechanisms in certain Tasers, also known as stun guns.

And that’s just in the last two years.

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