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"Facility for airplanes criticized at hearing"

Thursday,  May 22, 2003

Facility for airplanes criticized at hearing
By Alan Levin

WASHINGTON -- The maintenance facility that improperly repaired a commuter
plane that crashed Jan. 8 in North Carolina was plagued with problems,
according to documents and testimony released this week.

The training program at the facility in Huntington, W.Va., was deficient, a
federal inspector said.

Furthermore, the facility was supervised by a complex layer of three
companies that didn't communicate well, according to records of the National
Transportation Safety Board.

Partly as a result of the crash that killed all 21 aboard US Airways Express
Flight 5481, the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) is
considering new ways to oversee maintenance operations. FAA inspectors
monitor maintenance, but the law places responsibility for maintenance on
the airlines.

The Air Midwest Airlines Beech 1900D, operated under contract with US
Airways Express, crashed 39 seconds after taking off from Charlotte/Douglas
International Airport. The control panels that raise and lower the plane's
nose, known as elevators, were misadjusted by the maintenance workers Jan.
6. When the plane took off two days later, its nose shot skyward because it
was overloaded and tail-heavy. The pilots could not level it because of the
misadjusted elevator controls, the NTSB says.

Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group, had hired Raytheon Aerospace to
perform the maintenance on its fleet of Beech 1900D aircraft. Raytheon then
turned to another company, SMART Inc. of Edgewater, Fla., to provide the
mechanics. Such arrangements are lawful, and some airlines have successfully
hired others to perform maintenance for years.

Some safety experts say the arrangement blurred responsibility and may have
led to some of the breakdowns that occurred at the facility. ''This accident
shows an overwhelming need for the airline to maintain a total control of
the quality system,'' says John Goglia, an NTSB board member who had been an
airline mechanic.

According to testimony before the NTSB and records made public this week:

   * The FAA's inspector overseeing Air Midwest maintenance had repeatedly
asked the airline to set-up a training program. ''We're working on it,'' was
the only response he got, he said.

   * The inspection of the repair work on the plane that crashed was done in
violation of the airline's maintenance manual. The work was performed by a
mechanic who was being trained. The mechanic who supervised the work
inspected it later. Apparently, neither of them noticed the improper
elevator adjustment.

   * The maintenance manual at the facility was inadequate, an Air Midwest
official testified. The mechanics said they skipped several steps because
they thought those steps did not apply.

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