Are Boeing’s Big Jets Safe?

A lawsuit alleges that planes made with “bogus” parts “must be grounded.”

Sheila Kaplan
October 13 , 2005

First in a series of articles.

Documents made public in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against The Boeing Company suggest that thousands of unsafe and unapproved parts have been installed on jets the company produced between 1994 and 2001—and perhaps longer.

In U.S. ex rel Smith et al v. Boeing and Ducommun, which is slowly unfolding in a Wichita, Kansas federal courthouse, three former Boeing auditors accuse the company of accepting defective and uninspected parts from Ducommun, a supplier based in Carson, California. The whistleblowers, Jeannine Prewitt, Taylor Smith and James Ailes, allege that Boeing installed these unsafe and unapproved components on 32 jets built for the government. Because the case was filed under the False Claims Act, it is restricted to military jets and other airplanes sold to the government.

But Mother Jones has ascertained that the alleged structural defects in these parts, some classified as “flight safety critical” by the government, could likewise threaten the airworthiness of at least 1,600 commercial airplanes manufactured between 1994 and 2004—and still flying. In a recent motion to dismiss the case, Ducommun actually argues that the whistleblowers cannot prove that anyone in their company knew the parts were being sold to military or government buyers, because they also routinely supply commercial jets.

The whistleblowers reported an array of problems in 11 different components that Boeing uses to construct fuselages. Some of the most troubling allegations concern bear straps, which are a type of doubler, or reinforcement, used to support doorways; chords, which are arrayed radially around the contour of an aircraft and serve as the ribs of the fuselage; and failsafe chords, which are reinforced chords designed for particular locations on the airframe.

Some of the allegations involve Ducommun’s purported quality assurance deficiencies, among them a failure to conduct requisite inspections or to follow proper quality control procedures. Components manufactured without those assurances would not meet FAA approval. More serious than charges of uninspected parts are charges that parts were actually used that were known to be imperfect, with incorrectly drilled holes or other physical defects. Of particular significance are bear straps delivered by Ducommun, which, according to the plaintiffs, “were physically nonconforming because of shy-edge margins…and by virtue of the lack of statistical process control data and improper/inadequate and nonexistent inspection.” Additionally, they said, the fail-safe chords for the 737 series 600, 700 and 800, were defective because of “shy-edge margins, mislocated advanced technical assembly holes and were out of contour per engineering requirements,’’ with at least one in the forward bulkhead off the mark by two inches. “The defective doublers and triplers resulted in shy-edge margins, causing the fasteners to ride too close to the edge of the skin material,’’ which can cause cracking, particularly as the planes age.

A letter from Boeing to the FAA obtained by Mother Jones under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), dated September 7, 2001, confirms that the skins on some of the manufacturer’s earlier model 737’s, which may have had Ducommun parts, had already started to crack. “Our review suggests that the cracking of the skin and doublers common to the bear strap around the entry and service doors may be caused by the hinge cutouts,” wrote Joseph M. Romanosky for G.K. Dial, Boeing manager of “continued airworthiness.”

The auditors charge that Ducommun’s quality control system was so poor that none of the parts in question made there between 1994 and 2004, and installed on Boeing 737s, 747s, 757s and 767s, should be considered approved, rendering them all, in industry parlance, bogus. Prewitt, Taylor and Smith also say that Ducommun used two sets of books to hide its fraud, that Boeing knew for years that many of Ducommun’s parts were bogus, and that Boeing personnel deleted from the company’s records a report explaining how serious the problems were and noting a need to “begin disengagement” with Ducommun. Because of these problems, the plaintiffs say, “Boeing aircraft with Ducommun unapproved parts are not airworthy, are not safe and must be grounded.”

Fears about the safety of the nation’s air fleet extend beyond the confines of the courtroom. “We’re very concerned about this,” says Tomaso DiPaolo, national aircraft certification representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “What we don’t know is how this really affects the commercial fleet…. If any of these parts fail, you can compromise the aircraft.”

Mother Jones’ repeated calls to Ducommun over a period of six weeks were not returned. Boeing said the allegations are false and that all its airplanes are safe. But the aviation giant refused to answer Mother Jones’ specific questions raised by documents piling up in the case, among them internal memos showing that Boeing employees besides the three plaintiffs had no confidence in Ducommun and wanted to stop accepting its parts until the problems were resolved, and a sworn statement by a recently retired procurement agent that his supervisor asked him if he could “lose” a document referring to its Ducommun investigation. The supervisor in question denies it.

None of the 30 Boeing staffers mentioned in the records would discuss the case. When reached for comment, several noted that company management warned them not to talk about it. In June, Boeing sold its Wichita commercial aviation division to Onexcorp, of Canada. The facility, now known as Spirit Aerosystems, retains many former Boeing employees and serves as a Boeing contractor. Spirit Aerosystems and Onexcorp likewise declined comment. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which investigated the matter in 2002 and concluded in 2004 there was no safety concern, has reopened its inquiry.

In 2003, Boeing named Ducommun one of its top suppliers of the year.

Coming Soon: The FAA and the Whistleblowers.

Sheila Kaplan is Mother Jones’ investigative editor.

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This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like you.

© 2005 The Foundation for National Progress

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