New Doors Causing Cockpit Problems
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Richard O'Reilly, Times Staff Writers
WASHINGTON ï¿½ American Airlines Flight 2885 to Orange County was 35,000 feet over Kansas when the captain was banged on the head, leaving him unable to fly the plane. A 12-pound panel in one of the new fortified cockpit doors had suddenly popped open and struck him.
British Airways Flight 146 from Calcutta to London was cruising over Europe when the pilots noticed a burning smell. Unable to find its source, the captain declared an emergency. The pilots donned oxygen masks and landed the Boeing 747 in Latvia. The problem: an overheated electrical component in a new anti-hijacking door.
The incidents this year are examples of glitches that suggest the new "fortress" cockpit doors are hardly foolproof. Publicly available documents show there have been at least 35 reported incidents involving problems with the operation of the doors since August 2002.
Even as industry and government fix operational problems, some pilots are questioning the overall design of the doors. They must be opened for pilots to use the bathroom and receive food and drink, creating a clear vulnerability. United Airlines is considering a second barrier ï¿½ perhaps a Kevlar net ï¿½ for better security.
The fortified doors, required by U.S. and international aviation authorities after the Sept. 11 attacks, were designed to withstand extreme pounding and a hail of bullets. Developed and installed in record time, they are considered a crucial defense in the war on terrorism.
But the security door might be opened a dozen or more times on a long flight, said Robert M. Semprini, a New York-based Boeing 737 co-pilot who often flies from coast to coast. "That's a huge loophole," he said.
"If a passenger sees a pilot walk out of the cockpit to go to the lavatory, they know the guy's got to go back in," said Semprini, who has proposed his own design for backup doors.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the fortified doors are a vast improvement over their flimsy predecessors. Some minor glitches were to be expected, but all problems have been or are being resolved, the agency said ï¿½ with no compromise of security or safety.
"We do not see any type of problem regarding the doors in the U.S. fleet," said Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman. "They are working very well."
However, FAA Associate Administrator Nicholas Sabatini recently described the door requirements as "the minimum acceptable" standard.
"A company or airline may develop a design that exceeds the existing requirements [and], for example, provides for a secondary barrier door," Sabatini wrote in a June 23 letter to Semprini.
"We can't rely on the assumption that a secure cockpit has been guaranteed by the doors that were put in," said Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. "We haven't finished dealing with the problem."
The Times reviewed reports on an incident being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and another case handled by its British counterpart, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
The Times also examined a NASA database known as the Aviation Safety Reporting System for problems with cockpit doors from 2001 to 2003. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, there were two reports of problems. There were dozens of reports after fortified doors were installed, but those that involved simple errors by crews were not counted.
In addition to running the space program, NASA conducts aeronautic research. Its data, intended to provide early warning of aviation safety problems, does not identify the airline involved in an incident.
Some of the security breaches described in the NASA data were peculiar. A Boeing 737 was descending toward Portland International Airport in Oregon in June when a passenger stuck his head in the cockpit and said, "Captain, your door is not secure." He then shut the door and returned to his seat.
The crew reported that the door had been firmly closed, the cockpit lock switch was activated, and a warning light that would indicate a problem was off. The passenger left the plane before the pilots could talk to him.
More than 10,000 domestic and foreign planes serving the United States were equipped with fortified cockpit doors to meet an April 9 deadline set by the FAA. About 15 manufacturers used a variety of designs to meet federal standards. The doors typically are made of high-strength composite materials and cost $30,000 to $50,000. Taxpayers contributed about $13,000 per door to U.S. airlines.
In addition to their security features, the fortified doors have a safety role in the event of a serious decompression of the cockpit during flight. In some designs, large "blow-out" panels fitted in the door automatically swing open. These decompression panels are intended to prevent sudden stresses on the fuselage that could cause an in-flight breakup.
It was a blow-out panel on a Boeing 757 door that injured the captain of American Flight 2885 ï¿½ and prompted the FAA to issue a mandatory repair order affecting 2,089 planes worldwide with the same design.
Flight 2885 was bound for John Wayne Airport from St. Louis on the morning of June 10, with 93 passengers and a crew of five. A flight attendant had just handed the crew a tray of refreshments and was attempting to secure the cockpit door. The captain was on his feet, helping.
Suddenly, the door's upper blow-out panel ï¿½ about the size of a hefty cutting board ï¿½ popped open and swung down toward the captain's face.
"The captain received a 1-inch-long cut on his head ï¿½ rendering him incapacitated, " according to an NTSB summary. Although conscious, the captain was unable to do his job, and the first officer diverted the plane to Denver. The accident is under investigation.
NASA's database recorded a similar incident in December 2002 in which a co-pilot was injured. The FAA said it was aware of nine cases of blow-out panels inadvertently opening at the time it issued its repair order.
The company that made the doors for the Boeing 757, C&D Aerospace of Huntington Beach, said it suspects the cause of the problem was that some of its doors were improperly installed.
Nonetheless, C&D issued a service bulletin recommending a repair. "We added a strap on the back side of the latches, so when you slam the door, [the panel] wouldn't pop open," said Tom McFarland, an executive vice president for the firm.
The FAA made the repair mandatory in a July 10 directive that said, "An unsafe condition has been identified that is likely to exist or develop on other airplanes of the same type design." American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said the problem was corrected on all the carrier's planes and there were no further incidents.
Triggering a decompression panel automatically would create an opening in the cockpit door, but McFarland said that would not be a security risk. A pilot could just swing the panel back into place and it would lock again, he said.
The company also had to deal with cases of doors that appeared to be locked, but suddenly swung open on takeoff ï¿½ a problem commonly reported to NASA.
The cause probably was a brief interruption of power to a latching mechanism that holds the doors shut, McFarland said. The electrical interruption would have occurred before departure, when the aircraft switched from auxiliary to engine power.
"We ended up putting a different micro-switch in there that bridged the gap," said McFarland, and that appears to have solved the problem. Nonetheless, some pilots said they still make extra careful checks to avoid embarrassing themselves and alarming passengers if a door were to open on departure.
C&D is not the only company that has had to fix glitches.
Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said installation problems most likely led to cases of overheating in an electrical component that locked the cockpit door of its 747, a venerable workhorse of international travel.
Aviation authorities in the United Kingdom investigated the incident on British Airways Flight 146, which made an emergency landing April 20 in Riga, Latvia, after pilots smelled smoke. The Calcutta-to-London flight carried 307 passengers and a crew of 18.
Smoke or fire are among the most dangerous conditions pilots can encounter in flight. A fire that grew out of control caused the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people aboard.
British Airways had "no procedures in place" for its crews to diagnose the door problem and shut off power to the malfunctioning part, investigators found. After landing, pilots discovered that the area around the cockpit door was hot.
Boeing alerted other airlines to inspect the installation of 747 doors. British Airways said it fixed the problem on its planes. The airline also developed trouble-shooting guidance for pilots. Proulx said Boeing is working on a fuse that would protect the mechanism from overheating.
"It wouldn't be enough smoke to incapacitate the pilots or keep them from doing their jobs," Proulx said of the malfunction. "No flight control systems would be affected in any way. It would be an 'Oh, gosh, we smell smoke.' "
However, after a medical check, one of the co-pilots on the British Airways flight was found to have elevated levels of carbon monoxide in his blood. In sufficient quantities, carbon monoxide can lead to dizziness, blackouts or even death.
Another manufacturer, JAMCO America of Everett, Wash., said it replaced knobs on electrical switches pilots use to unlock the door on some Boeing 767s. The original version, located on an overhead panel that also holds other switches, resembled one that controls power for the plane's autopilot system. At least two pilots had mistakenly switched off power to their autopilots while trying to open cockpit doors in flight, creating confusion, according to NASA records.
Even if mechanical malfunctions have been addressed, some pilots remain concerned about the unavoidable exposure when the cockpit door is opened in flight.
"Our vulnerability point is when we are coming out to use the bathroom, or when food is being brought in ï¿½ it's not 100% foolproof," said Jon Russell, a safety officer for the Air Line Pilots Assn.
Some airlines mitigate the risk by having a flight attendant block the cabin aisle with a service cart when a pilot is using the bathroom. But pilots are calling for a safer option, and at least one major airline agrees.
"We are looking for a more permanent, better solution," said United spokesman Jeff Green. "We've prototyped a few solutions, and we're looking at getting into the design phase." Green would not comment on specifics, but other sources said one option could be a Kevlar net that would be stretched across the aisle just behind the forward galley and lavatory when the cockpit is opened.
"We're looking for something a little more secure," Green said.
Times researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.
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