Continental Airlines found a 12-inch crack in the fuselage of a Boeing 737 two weeks ago similar to cracks believed to have caused an Aloha Airlines 737 to rip open in mid-air, a federal safety investigator said Monday.
James L. Kolstad, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that Continental inspectors made the “chilling discovery” when paint was stripped off the fuselage of the 19-year-old aircraft during routine repainting.
He said the crack was not found during new special inspections required by the Federal Aviation Administration since the Aloha accident.
The plane has been grounded, an FAA spokesman said.
29 Shorter Cracks
Besides the 12-inch crack in the Continental plane, there were 29 shorter cracks along a 30-inch section of a fuselage joint in the “same general area” as the cracks thought to have caused the top of the 19-year-old Aloha jetliner to tear off at 24,000 feet in April, killing a flight attendant, Kolstad said.
“It’s interesting that the airworthiness directives mandating inspections for cracks only five months ago failed to catch these,” he said in prepared remarks to an aviation organization in Montreal.
Those directives, issued in May, required airlines to conduct detailed visual inspections of all 737s with more than 30,000 takeoffs and precise electronic inspections of those with more than 50,000 takeoffs.
The FAA said at the time it was concerned that a “cold bonding” process used in the manufacture of older 737s to seal layers of the fuselage skin to each other ultimately might lead to corrosion and cracks.
The Continental 737 had 55,000 takeoffs. By comparison, the Aloha jetliner had more than 90,000 takeoffs.
Plane Was Inspected
Continental spokesman Ned Walker said the airline conducted the FAA-mandated inspection of the Boeing 737 on May 20 and found no evidence of any cracks.
Walker said the airline rechecked all its 737s with more than 50,000 takeoffs within 72 hours of finding the 12-inch crack.
The FAA said in a statement that it would soon issue expanded inspection requirements, proposed shortly after the emergency inspection directives went out in May, that would require that paint be stripped from an aircraft if it is so thick that it can hide a crack during an inspection.
The safety board has yet to complete its investigation of the Aloha accident.