Home Aviation Alarming Spike in Aircraft Hydraulic Failures Underscores Lurking Catastrophe
American 191 hydraulic failure was America’s worst aviation accident. Source: Chicago Tribune

Alarming Spike in Aircraft Hydraulic Failures Underscores Lurking Catastrophe

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Media Reports, U.S. Government Data, & An Apparent Botched Whistleblower Investigation Present Alarming Evidence

Last month, on February 12, a brand-new British Airways Airbus A350 jet was on final approach to Toronto’s Pearson airport when a hydraulic system failed. A report cites that upon flight 93’s landing, “brakes were found to be extremely hot, and there was hydraulic fluid leaking from the (brand new) plane.”

Similarly, two different Qantas airlines Airbus A330’s with sequential registration numbers (both delivered around the same time in 2003,) experienced hydraulic failures on the very same route, from Sydney to Perth. Both flight 575 on December 15, 2019, and flight 642 on January 16, 2020, returned to Sydney after declaring emergencies.

In the U.S., on January 2, 2020, Allegiant Airlines flight 2038 was midflight from Columbus, Ohio to Sarasota, Fla., when a cockpit warning light flashed. The hydraulic systems of the Airbus A320 were malfunctioning. Flight 2038 declared an emergency and landed in Asheville, N.C., prematurely and safely.

These were four of seven reports of at least single-hydraulic system failures aboard aircraft operated by either FAA-regulated U.S. carriers, or foreign airlines (holding top-level safety ratings)—in the trailing quarter.

To evaluate if this is abnormal, a query of data compiled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), revealed that, indeed, from 2018 to 2019, there has been a 300-percent spike in reported aircraft hydraulic malfunctions. These statistics potentially underscore a dangerous trend in an era where a generation has passed since we last witnessed a significant U.S. aviation catastrophe.

The other three incidents were:

  • On December 28, when Air Canada flight #8724 diverted and landed safely in Moncton, New Brunswick. The aircraft en route from Gaspe, Quebec to the Magdalen Islands, according to a report experienced a hydraulic “issue with its landing gear.” Emergency crews were awaiting the aircraft upon its unexpected deviation.
  • On December 9, when the routine Lufthansa flight #404, left Frankfurt bound for New York, only to turn around and land in Cologne, Germany. A spokesperson for Lufthansa claimed the landing was due to a hydraulic-system error on one of their Airbus A340 jets.
  • On November 13, Air New Zealand flight # NZ8807 experienced “hydraulic issues,” before performing an emergency landing in Christchurch.

Hydraulic Systems

Properly trained pilots take no chances if any indication of hydraulic malfunction presents itself. Well-trained U.S. pilots are the primary reason that hydraulic failures rarely call attention to passengers in the U.S.

The other reason is redundancy — much like your favorite NFL quarterback, on most airliners, there are two backup hydraulic systems. Converse to the gridiron, in aviation, when one hydraulic system fails, pilots are trained to stop the game.

Hydraulic valve malfunctions can stem from quality issues, wear-and-tear, and misconfiguration. Despite redundancy, if all three systems share the same faulty components, the outcomes could be disastrous. This was the fear that prompted an engineer at the world’s largest manufacturer of airplane parts to file a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whistleblower complaint when his concerns fell on deaf ears with management.

The Young Whistleblower

The author of the FAA complaint also submitted an appeal for lost wages, stemming from what he believed to be a wrongful/retaliatory termination (before lodging the claim) from his role as an engineer at a company that’s part of a group of forty-one companies acquired by Portland, OR-based Precision Castparts Corporation (“PCC”) since 1999. He expressed belief the conglomerate was eradicating competition in the components sector.

He first voiced concerns with quality controls to that particular company, Permaswage Inc., a division of PCC (purchased in 2012). Today, Permaswage has a widespread distribution network. Specifically, the complaint alleged gaudy (hydraulic) part production within the little-known framework settled beneath a, nonetheless, very well-known corporate umbrella: Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The engineer (who earned his B.S. in aerospace engineering from UCLA) was unavailable for comment because he died in March of 2018. However, for the same reason, his name, Brandon Nelson (then-26) of Santa Monica, CA, can be made public.

Is Wall Street Compromising Safety?

Nelson was troubled because PCC was and still is Berkshire Hathaway’s most prominent subsidiary and those competition concerns arose from his indication that these particular parts appear voluminously in nearly all jet airliners due to a lack of competition.

(Berkshire Hathaway also owns significant stakes (either largest or second largest) in all four major U.S. air carriers — make of that what you will…).

Source: NASA Ames Research Center’s Aviation Safety Reporting System Database

In that letter appealing lost compensation, Nelson warned regulators, “any one of these components may become inoperable, which may lead to the crash of an aircraft and potential fatalities — crashes due to hydraulic failure have occurred in the past.”

Admittedly, emergency landings can resemble benign, isolated incidents. Nevertheless, Nelson is spot-on. A prime illustration is America’s deadliest aviation accident to-date, American 191, in 1979. In that case, severed hydraulic lines contributed to the horrific barrel-roll and the consequent fiery explosion of the fully fueled DC-10 at O’Hare Field in Chicago.

 

Evidence revealing the relevance of ‘benign’ incidents to Nelson came without surprise. In a text message to his kid-brother, Justin, he insisted that “These sorts of things don’t just happen,” referring to the 2017 report of an Air France Airbus A380’s emergency landing after (what one twitter report by a passenger shows) an engine literally exploded!

American ‘low-cost’ carrier, Allegiant, holds a ‘four-star’ safety rating (suitable for a hotel, bad for an airline) granted by airlineratings.com. Meanwhile, those other three incidents mentioned above occurred on carriers holding “seven-star” tags (the top rating). Qantas, Australia’s national flagship carrier, was considered the world’s safest airline in 2020.

(Airlinratings.com evaluations are derived from European Union and U.S. regulator information — their ratings have been widely used and cited by outlets including The New York Times.)

The Hard(er) Data

That government data compiled by NASA is the critical kicker. The Aviation Safety Reporting System, “ASRS,” is the U.S.’s single database for anonymous reporting of aviation incidents or concerns by experts (mostly airline pilots, mechanics, and some flight attendants), and in a few cases, the flying populace. The inputs are vetted by similarly trained, unaffiliated experts at NASA’s Ames Research Center in San Jose, California.

The NASA data showed that in the first three quarters of 2019, reports of these single-system hydraulic failures topped the annual numbers occurring in any of the trailing five years (2014–2018). Reports in 2019 have increased to a level nearly four times higher than in 2018.

The ASRS is an anonymous system. However, the reports seem to be just as prevalent if you search beyond the incidents of the trailing quarter. For instance:

  • On October 19, WestJet 3537 en route from Toronto to Montreal was directed back to its origin by air traffic controllers after the “pilots reported a hydraulic failure.”
  • On October 14, Southwest Airlines flight 4448 was evacuated on the runway at Chicago’s Midway airport after a flight from Austin. Airline officials issued a statement that categorized “a hydraulic issue following landing,” as the reason for summoning emergency crews.
  • On June 29, United flight #2098 took off from New York City’s LaGuardia airport, then the Airbus A319 performed an emergency landing at nearby Newark Liberty Airport. United spokespeople cited “hydraulics issues.” As a result, Newark Liberty airport was temporarily shut down so crews could apply fire retardant to the runway and damaged aircraft.
  • On May 9, a report cites that Singapore Airlines flight 408, another Airbus A380, made a “very hard landing and an emergency response from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.” It was later determined that jumbo-jet experienced a hydraulics error that resulted in 17 hours of repairs.

Complacency or Cover-Up?

The airline industry is a complex system, and predicting severe incidents can be challenging because the majority are a result of edge cases. Due to redundant systems, it generally takes multiple system failures to cause an actual crash. However, ‘challenging’ does not mean ‘impossible.’

Report #EWB18510, however, prognosticates that the hydraulic “fittings” Nelson played a role in evaluating for quality before shipping out the door, were at risk of failure after sufficient wear-and-tear. He cautioned corporate administrators that the hydraulic fixtures were not being built to customer specifications and did not contain the proper lubrication. They are allegedly marketed as “maintenance-free,” according to the report, however, after some time, the tiny metal fixtures could be susceptible to leaks — which result in failures.

PCC’s CEO, Mark Donegan, and its allegedly cut-throat internal environment was the subject of a scathing 2016 Bloomberg News article by Noah Buhayar. That account lends no surprise to the fact his supervisors ignored his concerns. Nelson went externally to the FAA, however. However, his interest was with accelerated wear and tear of installed parts, the FAA investigation was conducted with new “Permaswage fittings” on the shop floor, and the official finding was “No violation of a regulation, order, or standard.”

Ian Gregor of the FAA re-emphasized a statement made in May saying, in regards to this particular investigation: “the FAA randomly selected and evaluated three Permaswage purchase order packages that were applicable to the time period of the plaintiff’s allegations, and randomly inspected three parts in the company’s inventory.” They also reiterated the fact they found nothing out of the ordinary, despite no inspection of an installed fitting, and failing to refute that Permaswage had advanced notice of the visit.

As for Berkshire Hathaway and PCC: they failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Nelson believed the FAA’s failure to conduct a more robust inquiry could lead to loss of life. According to Charles Sena, a Nelson-family friend from Orange County, CA, “(Nelson) was emphatic that these parts could bring down an airplane.”

He may have been right.

 


DISCLOSURE: I have no investment positions in any company mentioned in this article and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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Penn Little
Penn Little, first and foremost, is an entrepreneur with three successful startups and exits. He added the title of “writer" and "investigative journalist" in 2018, in what he calls an “amazing accident." Penn aims through entrepreneurship and writing to serve, and remedy some of America and the world’s most vexing problems. A personal quest in 2018 led him directly to uncovering the notable Acadia Healthcare series on SeekingAlpha.com. Penn published that along with various other pieces on companies such as Lyft, Berkshire Hathaway, and AT&T in SeekingAlpha in 2018, and 2019. He is also a contributor for Forbes A native of rural Oklahoma, Penn is DDI’s Chief Investigative Reporter. He focuses on using data and his “Main Street” sense to help folks see the bigger picture, ‘when things don’t add up.' Penn holds a BA from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied Economics, and an MBA in Finance from the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. He resides in Chicago, IL. His portfolio is available at pennlittle.com/publications

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