Wednesday, November 14, 2001

GE engine's problems have piled up


But its record is good

By James Pilcher and Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The type of engine that powered the jetliner that crashed Monday in New York has been hailed as one of the industry's most reliable power plants and is a major product line of Evendale's GE Aircraft Engines.

        But airlines have also logged 125 service difficulty reports about the CF6-80C2 in the past five years, with problems causing 51 unscheduled landings and 12 aborted takeoffs in that time, an Enquirer analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records found.

        Federal investigators also have noted problems with the engines blowing up and parts flying out — endangering other parts of the plane. They have proposed tighter regulations to correct the problem, saying they could cause “an unsafe condition.”

        National Transportation Safety Board member George Black on Tuesday said preliminary indications are that the crash probably was not caused by an internal engine failure.

        Yet the FAA has issued 23 different airworthiness directives for that type of engine in the past 12 years, changing the way they are maintained and inspected.

        “On the one hand, there have been problems with the engine,” said Bob Francis, former vice chairman of the NTSB, the organization that is heading up the investigation into Monday's crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

        “But on the other hand, there have been no major accidents caused by the CF-6. So you just can't tell what the role is in the current crash this early into the investigation.”

        GE Aircraft Engines manufactured the CF6-80C2 at its Evendale plant until 1994, when production moved to Durham, N.C.

        The company says this type of engine is the most widely used and reliable engine for wide-body jets in the world. The engine has an in-flight shutdown frequency of about one an engine every 40 years.

        Company officials also say that the number of airworthiness directives is not unusual, given the years it has been flying. .

        “The ADs (airworthiness directives) aren't a reflection of an engine's unreliability, but are more about learning the engine's characteristics while it's in service,” GEAE spokesman Rick Kennedy said.

        The CF6-80C2 engines, which cost about $7 million apiece, power more than 1,000 wide-body jets ranging from Air Force One to smaller twin-engine jetliners such as the Boeing 767, the Airbus Industrie A310 and the Airbus A300, the type of plane that crashed in New York.

        According to Mr. Kennedy, the CF6-80C2 was introduced in 1985 and has accumulated about 75 million flight hours in the course of powering more than 4,000 aircraft departures daily.

        The longer an engine has been in service, the more directives the power plant will accumulate, Mr. Kennedy said.

        “It's all about increasing the safety margin on the engine,” Mr. Kennedy said. “A lot of it has to do with modifying the life limit on parts and adjusting inspection schedules.”

        Mr. Kennedy said GE has complied with all the government's repair orders and thinks that the engine is “phenomenally reliable.”

        Still, the NTSB in December issued four recommendations to the FAA regarding the engine, citing a likelihood for “uncontained failure” — or engine explosions that cause parts to fly out, which would endanger other parts of the plane.

        The incident that sparked the report involved a US Airways Boeing 767 that was being tested on the ground in Philadelphia in September 2000.

        “This incident raises serious safety concerns because, if it had occurred during flight rather than on the ground during maintenance, the airplane might not have been able to maintain safe flight,” the National Transportation Safety Board said in its report.

        “This is a major issue, because engines do give out occasionally,” Mr. Francis said.

        Most recently, an engine on a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 blew out on takeoff from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Sept. 22. The explosion was contained, and the plane returned to the airport without incident.

        Mr. Francis, who served on the NTSB from 1995 to 2000 and is now a Washington-based aviation consultant, said the NTSB has rated the FAA's response to its four recommendations as “acceptable.”

        Most recently, the FAA published a safety notice Oct. 5 that would require more frequent inspections for cracks in rotor disks, a component within the engines.

        Citing “an unsafe condition that is likely to exist or develop,” the FAA said it was seeking public comment until Dec. 4 before ordering the more extensive and more frequent inspections.

        The FAA also has suggested new rules requiring new internal covers over parts of the engine to prevent uncontained failures and has recommended more frequent inspections of the engines overall. The first rule has yet to be finalized, even though the public comment period ended in July.

        Also last year, the FAA ordered more frequent inspections of CF6- 80C2 engines built before 1995 to look for hair-thin cracks found on engine compressor spools, which hold the compressor blades.

        That order stemmed from an engine failure on a Boeing 767 preparing for takeoff from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Varig Brasil jet was taxiing down the runway when the crew heard a loud bang and stopped the jet.

        The FAA order also called for all pre-1995 compressor spools to be replaced within 15 years. Mr. Kennedy said GE is working the airlines to replace them all with a new design within five years.

       



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