Sat "Weekend Australian"
Cracking grounds Qantas jets
By Steve Creedy, aviation writer
September 27, 2003
Qantas has grounded two jumbo jets and called in manufacturer Boeing after maintenance engineers found a 75cm crack in a crucial part that joins sections of the fuselage near the rear of the plane.
The crack is thought to have spread from damage caused when a metal tool was used to scrape off paint.
The damaged strap, called body station 2181, is used to knit together sections of the aircraft during manufacturing.
The damage is believed to have been done before Qantas acquired the leased aircraft in 1998 and could potentially have led to a structural failure if left unrepaired.
Qantas sources said the airline also had found problems with other production joints in the aircraft.
"(Qantas is) now looking at all the fuselage joints right around the aircraft, and they've actually found other damage in those joints," a source said.
Asked how dangerous the crack was, the source said: "I'd be very concerned myself. I wouldn't have been pleased if I thought my family had travelled on it."
A 1.76m crack in the skin of a China Airlines 747-200 was blamed for the aircraft breaking up in mid-air in 2002. All 209 passengers and 16 crew were killed shortly after take-off from Taipei.
Boeing spokesman Ken Morton said last night the manufacturer was taking the crack "very seriously".
"We would want to be the catalysts to making sure that any other airline that had an aircraft that had been subjected to the same procedure was alerted," Mr Morton said.
It is understood the crack was found last week as the damaged aircraft, VH
-OED, was undergoing a maintenance procedure known as a D-check.
D-checks are the most intensive of maintenance and involve detailed examination of the stripped-down aircraft using a variety of hi-tech devices.
Qantas acquired the two jumbos from Malaysia Airlines in 1998, and had them repainted before they came back to Australia. "As part of a regular heavy maintenance check we discovered some low-level damage to the fuselage of a 747-400," a Qantas spokeswoman said.
"We're investigating the cause of the damage and we are in close consultation with Boeing. We've notified the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and we will advise them of the outcome of our investigations."
The spokeswoman said a second 747-400 repainted at the same place and time as the damaged plane was being inspected as a precaution.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority confirmed last night that Qantas had notified it of the crack. It said that it was monitoring the situation.
Spokesman Peter Gibson said CASA had also informed the US Federal Aviation Administration.
"We can't really do anything while Boeing is considering engineering solutions to the problem," he said.
"And obviously we and Qantas will be guided by that, whenever they come."
The crack could be detected only from the inside of the aircraft.
"The good thing is that it was found during the maintenance check, which is, after all, what the maintenance checks are there for," Mr Gibson said.
Meanwhile, airlines lashed out yesterday at the handling of the Sydney jet fuel shortage as international passengers faced delays of up to 10 hours and oil companies warned that supplies would remain tight for two more weeks.
Shell Australia believes it has fixed a problem at its Clyde refinery in western Sydney and is optimistic this, and fuel from a recently arrived tanker, will allow its supplies to return to previous levels later today.
The new fuel allowed the group of oil companies supplying Sydney airport to boost supplies from 35 per cent of normal to 50 per cent.
But Shell Australia chairman Tim Warren said Sydney's jet fuel supplies would remain tight until a Caltex refinery undergoing maintenance returned to full production on about October 8.
Thousands of international passengers were inconvenienced by the rationing, some waiting 10 hours for delayed flights and others missing connecting flights.
Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane demanded an explanation as to why the oil industry's contingency plans failed to cope with the unexpected combination of events that led to jet fuel rationing.