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06 April 2011

A review of a very eventful week in airline safety

This has been a very eventful week in airline safety, which has been dominated by the fallout from the April 1st fuselage rupture involving a Southwest Airlines 737-300, and an announcement by the French government wreckage from Air France flight 447 had been located at the bottom of the Atlantic. The A330 crashed into the ocean in June 2009, While the Southwest event has dominated the media, two other dramatic events have been occurring in the world of airline safety, including a deadly crash of a United Nations aircraft in Africa and an emergency evacuation of a United Airlines A320 in New Orleans .

Southwest Airlines fuselage rupture
There have been a number of unexpected surprises and regulatory actions since the NTSB started its investigation into the Southwest Airlines fuselage rupture on April 1st. This is a fast moving story with many parts, but the quick summary of the status of the investigation and the actions taken to deal with early findings is as follows:

- The rupture happened because of undetected metal fatigue in the fuselage

- A visual inspection, the only type required at the time, would not have detected the problem

- A previous Southwest 737 fuselage rupture in 2009 was in a completely different area of the fuselage

- The manufacturer (Boeing) had redesigned that area of the 737 fuselage in the 1990s and did not expect fatigue problems in this area of the aircraft (The lap joints that run the length of the fuselage) before about 60,000 flight cycles

- The incident aircraft had 39,781 flight cycles

- Southwest airlines grounded 79 similar aircraft (737-300s) and found five with similar problems

- On April 4th, Boeing came out with a service bulletin that detailed a more advanced inspection procedure that could detect the problem on affected Boeing 737-300, -400, and -500 series airplanes

- The FAA came out with an Airworthiness Directive (AD 2011-08-51) that required these advanced inspections be performed on all the affected aircraft within 20 days, and within five days of the aircraft has more than 35,000 cycles

- Aircraft that have accumulated more than 30,000 flight cycles must have this inspection procedure repeated at intervals not to exceed 500 flight cycles

- If cracks are detected, they must be repaired by an approved method before the aircraft can fly again

- Southwest has already complied with this Airworthiness directive. will provide updates on this investigation as they become available. Dr. Todd Curtis of was also interviewed by the BBC about this event.

United A320 has emergency landing in New Orleans
4 April 2011; United Airlines A320-200 (N409UA); flight 497: Shortly after departing New Orleans on a nonstop flight to San Francisco, while climbing through 4,000 feet, the crew received multiple automated warnings and detected smoke in the cockpit. The crew also reported a loss of primary instrumentation and turned back to New Orleans. Air traffic controllers had to provide navigational assistance. The aircraft lost of anti-skid braking and nose-wheel steering upon landing and exited the runway approximately 2000 feet from the departure end of the runway. There were no injuries among the 119 passengers and crew.

Crash of a UN plane in Africa kills all but one on board
4 April 2011; Georgian Airways Canadair CRJ-100; 4L-GAE; flight 834; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC): The aircraft was on a domestic unscheduled flight from Kisangani to N'Djili airport in Kinshasa, and was attempting an instrument approach to runway 24 around 14:00L during heavy rain and under low visibility conditions. The aircraft missed the runway, broke up, and caught fire. , and crashed into a forest while en route to its destination. There was one survivor among the four crew members and 29 passengers.

At the time of the crash, the airplane operated on behalf of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Because this was not a regular airline flight, this crash was not counted as a fatal event as defined by This was also one of those rare airliner crashes with a sole survivor and the sixth fatal crash involving a CRJ.

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