Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner, Part 2

November 30, 2009

The Cargo Door Fiasco - Turkish Air Flight 981

Fifteen days had passed since American Airlines Flight 96 had come within a hair’s breath of crashing; fifteen days that had seen the Western Region of the Federal Aviation Administration begin the process of issuing an Airworthiness Directive (AD) intended to correct the problems with the DC-10 cargo door design and probably the unvented passenger compartment floor as well.

But fate had intervened. The FAA administrator had taken the unusual action of becoming personally involved in the problem thereby short-circuiting the AD issuance. He had spoken with the president of Douglas Division of McDonnell-Douglas and the two men had agreed that the situation didn’t require a far reaching AD since the FAA and Douglas division of McDonnell-Douglas had a great working relationship.

With the involvement of the FAA’s top man, management of the Western Region field office stepped back and allowed McDonnell-Douglas to address the situation with service bulletins. The only problem was a service bulletin didn’t have the same effect as an AD.

Airworthiness Directives and Service Bulletins

An AD is a big hammer. A properly worded AD can require an action be taken before further flight under penalty of law. A service bulletin can only suggest an action be taken before further flight. More likely, it will suggest that the activity be accomplished within a certain time period or perhaps at the discretion of the aircraft operator.

Although an airline exposes itself to legal action if it doesn’t accomplish a service bulletin in a timely manner, (and there’s a crash as a result of a failure to perform a service bulletin), the FAA doesn’t view non-compliance with a service bulletin the same way it reacts to flouting an AD.

Fail to perform service bulletins and you’ll get jawboned. Flagrantly disregard an AD and you’ll be grounded.

Nevertheless, most airline companies take the issuance of a service bulletin, particularly a SB with ALERT status (meaning it’s a safety of flight issue), as an important event. Virtually all airlines jump right on them.

McDonnell-Douglas Service Bulletin 52-35 was sent to all operators of the DC-10 following the American Airlines Flight 96 episode. The SB was printed on Blue Paper and labeled ALERT which meant, in effect, “Listen Up, Pay Attention”.

SB 52-35 suggested the installation of a small viewing port directly above one the locking pins in the cargo door on all existing and all future DC-10 aircraft. It also suggested that decals be placed on the aircraft clearly showing the proper orientation of the locking pin and also showing what an improperly latched locking pin looked like.

The problem was the door was 15 feet above the ground and required a flashlight at night to allow viewing of the locking pin. Also, the window was only 1 inch in diameter and easily fogged. And in some cases, the baggage handler had to move a work ladder into position in order to complete the inspection.  The solution placed quite a burden on a person normally referred to within the industry as a “Ramp

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