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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Older Airbus Jets Get High-Tech Rudder Checks

The rudders of about 420 older Airbus jetliners are being subjected to repetitive ultrasonic and other enhanced inspections, the first time airlines and safety regulators have resorted to such recurring, high-tech procedures to determine the integrity of composite parts on airliners already in service. The stepped-up inspection program, recommended by Airbus months ago and then reaffirmed by EASA through a mandatory directive, calls for the first enhanced rudder checks to be completed within six months or 500 flights. Some inspections on certain planes must be repeated every 1,400 flights, a relatively short compliance schedule for checking structural integrity of primary flight structures. While the inspections primarily affect a relatively small number of older twin-engine A300s and A310s, they nevertheless represent a significant break from longstanding Airbus-developed maintenance standards for composite materials. Before the incident, Airbus and European regulators maintained that simple visual inspections, combined with a mechanic's manually tapping on the surface of the composite rudders, were adequate to detect any potentially hazardous internal flaws or structural weaknesses. But now for the first time, high-tech inspections methods are being required -- and must be repeated during the life of a what Airbus described as a "limited number" of Airbus jets -- to assure long-term rudder integrity. A spokesman for Airbus U.S. operations said only a small number of affected aircraft are flown by U.S. carriers. Spokesman Clay McConnell said about 400 A300 and A310 aircraft are covered by the added inspections, along with 20 wide-body Airbus A330 and A340 jetliners. Mr. McConnell said Airbus changed its rudder-manufacturing process before the 2005 incident. The issue of how to inspect composites is significant because both Airbus and rival Boeing Co. increasingly are relying on composite parts to improve the fuel-efficiency and reduce maintenance costs for their newest airliner models.
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