A Skeptic Under Pressure

Times Staff Writer

Ever since the Mangans gave up their comfortable house in Kansas City, Kan., and moved here a year ago, the family has been living in a kind of suspended animation.

It almost looks as if they just moved into their two-bedroom apartment near Austria’s old Imperial Palace: Some boxes shipped from the U.S. have never been opened and the bedroom windows are still covered with sheets because the family ran short of money before they could buy curtains.

The three young Mangan children have stopped asking about their plight, although 9-year-old Timothy gets angry every once in a while. “I wish I can yell at them,” he blurted out recently about his father’s former employer.


Joseph Mangan, 41, is a whistle-blower. As a result he and his family find themselves in a foreign country with unfamiliar laws, fighting a legal battle that has left them almost penniless.

A year ago, Mangan told European aviation authorities that he believed there were problems with a computer chip on the Airbus A380, the biggest and costliest commercial airliner ever built. The A380 is a double-decked engineering marvel that will carry as many as 800 passengers -- double the capacity of Boeing Co.'s 747. It is expected to enter airline service next year.

Mangan alleges that flaws in a microprocessor could cause the valves that maintain cabin pressure on the A380 to accidentally open during flight, allowing air to leak out so rapidly that everyone aboard could lose consciousness within seconds.

It’s a lethal scenario similar to the 1999 crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five others when their Learjet lost cabin pressure and they blacked out. The plane flew on autopilot for hours before crashing in South Dakota.

Mangan was chief engineer for TTTech Computertechnik, a Viennese company that supplies the computer chips and software to control the cabin-pressurization system for the A380, which is being assembled at the Airbus plant in France.

In October, TTTech fired Mangan and filed civil and criminal charges against him for revealing company documents. The company said the information was proprietary and he had no right to disclose it to anyone.

Mangan countersued, saying he had been wrongly terminated for raising legitimate safety concerns.

Unlike U.S. laws that shield whistle-blowers from corporate retaliation, Austrian laws offer no such protection. Last year an Austrian judge imposed an unusual gag order on Mangan, seeking to stop him from talking about the case.

Mangan posted details about the case anyway in his own Internet blog. The Austrian court fined him $185,000 for violating the injunction.

And the Vienna police, who are conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, searched the family’s apartment for four hours, downloading files from Mangan’s computer as his children watched.

Boxes of documents detailing his allegations clutter the living room, but Mangan can’t show the material or talk about the case -- at least in Austria.

To discuss his case with The Times, Mangan took a five-hour train ride to Munich, Germany, where the gag order doesn’t apply. “I don’t want to destroy TTTech,” he said. “But I still get nightmares of people dying. I just can’t let that happen.”

To help pay living expenses and legal fees, Mangan sold his house in Kansas. With only about $300 left in his bank account, Mangan missed a Sept. 8 deadline to pay his $185,000 fine and faces up to a year in jail. Next month he’s likely to be called before a judge on his criminal case.

The family expected to be evicted this month from their apartment, but their church in Vienna took up a collection to pay their rent.

At the moment, Mangan is hiding out at a church member’s home because he fears he could be arrested at any time.

Mangan’s wife, Diana, has been reading a book, “Lord, Where Are You When Bad Things Happen?” to make sense of the family’s ordeal. “He’s trying to do the right thing. Why are we suffering for it?” she said.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Mangan’s case has raised eyebrows in the close-knit aerospace community, which is fascinated by his allegations but unclear about how serious they are.

Hans Weber, a veteran aviation consultant in San Diego, can’t say whether Mangan has a legitimate claim because he hasn’t seen the evidence. But he is baffled by the extent to which Airbus and TTTech have “gone after” Mangan.

“There is something really unusual about this case in the sense that there is this hard standoff between Airbus and the individual,” Weber said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

One of Mangan’s key allegations is that because of the A380’s unusual design, any loss of cabin pressure would be extremely dangerous.

Most passenger jets have two cabin-pressure valves, with separate motors operating each. Because aircraft makers want redundancy on safety systems, the planes have three motors for each valve, with different chips controlling each motor. The Boeing 777, for example, has cabin-pressure chips made by Motorola Inc., Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Most jetliners also have a manual override so that the pilot can take control in an emergency.

Airbus has acknowledged that its designers faced challenges as they attempted to reduce the A380’s weight. Early on, the company elected to go with four outflow valves on the A380, with only one motor on each valve, which is slightly larger than a cabin window. Each motor uses a TTTech controller chip, and there is no manual override system.

“Just there, I would not be happy,” said Chris Lomax, a retired engineer who helped design the cabin-pressurization systems for Boeing’s 737 and 747. “If all four valves [on the A380] were driven wide open, it would be nip and tuck for the crew to get their [oxygen] mask on and begin a descent.”

Airbus says that the A380 has achieved redundancy by installing the extra cabin-pressure valves, which provide a safety cushion in case a valve fails. As for Mangan’s allegations, they are “an unsubstantiated crusade,” Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell said.

“Don’t you think we would look into it, and if we found it was true we would do something about it?” McConnell asked.

The A380, which is undergoing flight testing, is a year behind schedule because of unspecified problems. But Airbus has told aviation authorities that there is ample time to fix any problems that are discovered during the certification process.

TTTech executives insist that their product is safe. They portray Mangan as a disgruntled ex-employee seeking retribution and eager to blackmail them. “He’s trying to destroy the company,” Chief Executive Stefan Poledna said.

TTTech supplies parts to Hamilton Sundstrand, a United Technologies Corp. unit that is building the A380’s cabin-pressurization system. “The matters raised by Mr. Mangan have been thoroughly reviewed,” a Hamilton Sundstrand spokeswoman said, “and safety of flight will be assured.”

The European Aviation Safety Agency, which is handling the A380’s flight worthiness certification, has reviewed Mangan’s allegations. “We have done the research and acted accordingly,” spokesman Daniel Holtgen said. “We can’t comment on it because it is a matter for Airbus.”

Mangan believes that the European aerospace establishment is whitewashing his claims because of enormous cost savings that will be realized if TTTech’s chips are approved for the A380.

TTTech’s chip originally was designed for use in autos, and the company is trying to get it certified as an existing, “commercial off-the-shelf” product that is acceptable for the A380, according to court records.

Mangan, however, alleges that the chip is being customized for aviation purposes, and thus must undergo stringent testing before being approved by regulators.

If regulators decide that TTTech’s chip is a simple commercial device and can be used in the A380, it would then be available for other new aircraft without having to pass costly safety reviews.

That’s why the industry is so adamant about squashing his claims, Mangan alleges. Airbus, owned by Dutch and British companies, surpassed Boeing in 2003 as the world’s largest maker of airliners.

Mangan’s attorney, Franz Karl Juraczka, advised him last spring to leave Austria before his legal problems snowballed. Mangan refused: “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if anything went wrong with that airplane.”

Despite his ordeal, Mangan remains enthused about aerospace design. He can talk for hours about arcane subjects such as fluid dynamics with the same sense of excitement as a kid with a new toy.

Mangan was born in Ohio and grew up in San Jose, and he always had a fascination for science and technology, family members and friends said. When Apple introduced its first personal computer, the 12-year-old Mangan took apart the family’s television set to try to build a PC for himself. He also made a satellite receiver out of coffee cans to try to get weather data from an orbiting satellite.

At 16, while still in high school, he got a part-time job at IBM in San Jose helping to design robotic manufacturing machines. He attended San Jose State University and the University of Massachusetts, but never received a college degree.

Later, while working for Honeywell on a military jet project, he came into contact with TTTech, a company founded by two professors in Vienna to market their computer chips.

They say the chips contain 20 times more memory than the processors currently used in aviation, while having half the electrical wiring required for data communication systems that oversee aircraft controls. The chips also can be used on the steering and braking systems of autos. Moreover, they would cut the cost of aviation chips to about $20 apiece, versus $500 for previous designs.

Mangan was drawn by the firm’s potential. His future seemed bright in February 2004 when he was hired as chief engineer at a salary of $100,000, plus $25,000 in moving expenses. Diana Mangan packed up their three children -- Shelley, now 12, Timothy and Jarrod, 6 -- and they arrived in Vienna in the summer of 2004.

With its subsidized medical care and after-school-care programs, Austria looked like a great place to raise a family. And the family was pleased to discover that Vienna had a Baptist church.

Mangan began work on the chip for the A380’s cabin-pressurization system.

Until the 1940s, commercial airplanes were not pressurized and could fly only at about 10,000 feet. Flying above the clouds, around 30,000 feet, would make flights smoother, but at that altitude a lack of oxygen and temperatures of 140 degrees below freezing would kill passengers within minutes.

Then Boeing launched its Stratoliner, the first passenger plane with a sealed cabin. Internal pressure was maintained by regulating the intake and outflow of air during flight. This breakthrough helped lead to the age of modern air travel.

Today, most airline passengers -- besides experiencing mild popping in their ears -- rarely notice that air inside the cabin is in constant flux as air is taken in through the engines and let out through the valves in the belly of the plane.

However, if the valves are stuck open the cabin can depressurize in seconds before anyone can don emergency oxygen masks. In most cases pilots have time to bring the plane down to a safe altitude, but several recent incidents have raised concerns.

Authorities suspect that cabin-pressure problems caused the August crash in Greece of Helios Airways’ Boeing 737 in which all 121 aboard died. And investigators believe that an abrupt loss of cabin pressure may have led to the in-flight breakup of a China Airlines 747 in 2002, killing all 225 aboard.

Mangan said he found serious flaws early last year in TTTech’s computer chips and the software for the A380’s cabin-pressurization system, according to legal documents. The system was executing “unpredictable” commands when it received certain data, possibly causing the pressure valves to open accidentally.

Because all four motors in the A380’s cabin-pressurization system use the same type of flawed TTTech chip, Mangan says, “if one fails, they all fail.”

Yet his employer ignored his concerns, he alleges, because fixing the glitches would be costly, could take up to a year and would further delay the A380’s launch. TTTech tried to cover up the defects and forged Mangan’s signature on documents to suggest that the software passed internal tests and reviews, he alleges in court documents.

“Once they slip this onboard the A380, they can justify using it on all other aircraft,” Mangan said.

Indeed, Boeing Co. has ordered TTTech’s chips for the flight control system for its upcoming mid-size 787 Dreamliner. Boeing executives said they were unaware of any problems with TTTech’s chips, but said further questions should be addressed by TTTech.

TTTech executives denied any wrongdoing. They said there had been a minor glitch but that it had been fixed.

Within days of firing Mangan last fall, TTTech sued him in civil court to try to force him to retract his statements to aviation authorities about the potential defect.

In contrast to the U.S. legal system, in Austria individuals can file criminal charges. A few weeks later TTTech also sued Mangan in criminal court.

Then, in December, a civil court issued an injunction barring Mangan from talking about his case.

By May, the family was short of cash, so Mangan returned to the U.S. to borrow money to help pay his legal bills, and while there he also set up an Internet blog to publicize his safety concerns about the new Airbus.

The Mangans developed a circle of Austrian friends at their church who were eager to help. When Mangan decided his first lawyer wasn’t aggressive enough, the church referred him to attorney Juraczka, who agreed to represent him for free.

These days the family’s living room looks like a legal library, holding Mangan’s voluminous whistle-blower records. He wryly notes that the clutter prevented police from finding all of his documents during their search.

Throughout the family’s ordeal, Mangan remained dogmatic about not being chased out of Austria and about standing up for what he believed in. Diana said that she wondered at times whether it might be better to move on, but that the family was “very supportive that it will all work out.”

The Mangans live day to day, not sure what will come next. If they can’t pay their rent, they hope to return to the U.S. to live with Diana’s parents in Ohio, although they have maxed out their credit card and can’t afford plane tickets.

Mangan is getting ready to file for personal bankruptcy.

TTTech has offered to drop its legal action against Mangan, court records show, and pay him three months of severance, if he retracts his statements. But Mangan has refused.

Mangan said he was looking for a new job. He has contacted dozens of aerospace firms in the U.S. and Europe, but none have returned his calls. “Nobody wants to touch me,” he said.