Ride 'Em, Cowboy

Hell for Leather on Flight 48

Here's the question: Is it safe to fly during times when commercial airlines are under grinding economic stress?

American Airlines Flight 48 had just taken off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport at the start of a nine-hour overnight flight to Paris on April 20 when flight attendants heard an alarming noise from the bottom of the plane. According to one source, the sound was of "vibrating, shaking, even some ripping."

Alerted to the noise by flight attendants, the trio of pilots in the cockpit — two of them Miami-based — considered their options. One pilot got on a phone line to the dispatch center at American's headquarters in Dallas and then to the maintenance center in Tulsa.

A French airport official turns away in alarm.
A French airport official turns away in alarm.
View from the bottom.
View from the bottom.

According to an internal memo from an unidentified flight safety official, "the pilots and TUL Tech thought [the sounds] may have been [from] a cargo shift of some sort."

The memo added that "there were no indications in the cockpit, no warning lights or airframe vibrations felt."

Though the plane was still a relatively short distance from takeoff, the pilots, with the support of ground technicians, elected to continue the flight.

The source (who was not on the plane but is familiar with some of the principals involved) says the flight over the Atlantic was reportedly "pretty bumpy," both because of unstable weather and because of rumbling emanating from the bottom of the plane.

After the plane landed at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, the flight's crew and French airport officials quickly gathered under the airplane to see a frightening scene of exposed machinery and dangling paneling. Some took pictures.

Although the company has made no announcements about the incident, scuttlebutt flew among American Airlines personnel.

Many flight employees were openly upset about the seeming recklessness of the decision to proceed with the flight -- though a source at American insists there was nothing reckless about it. "If the captain had known the panel was missing, there's no question he would have turned around," says the source, "but given the noise was the only indication with no further warnings in the cockpit, and three hours to judge the situation before they reached the ocean, the decision wasn't reckless. The pictures are very dramatic, but the passengers and crew weren't in any danger."

A corporate spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the number of passengers on the airplane, but the Boeing 767-300 can carry up to 220.

Seasoned flight attendants questioned why, given the noises from the bottom of the airplane, the pilot didn't return to Dallas to check the fuselage.

They also questioned a peculiar silence about the flight from corporate officials and from the crew. It wasn't until Monday, after Tailpipe started making inquiries, that a corporate official sent out a message to all flight attendants explaining what had happened. This was two weeks after the incident.

"The first thing you're supposed to do in something like this is file a report with the union safety department," the source said. "Some people think the company got to the flight attendants and told them to shut the fuck up."

Lonny Glover, safety coordinator for the flight attendants union, says he has received inquiries from members about the incident but no reports from the flight attendants involved.

Asked about the appropriateness of continuing the flight, Glover said: "Given the information, it is the pilot's final decision... From other pilots that I have spoken to, they stated they would have elected to do the same."

Like the rest of the airline industry, American is suffering from high fuel costs and a shrinking travel market. Additionally, American has been afflicted by a series of forced inspections last month of its MD-80 aircraft.

The company reported this week that its traffic had dropped 6.6 percent in April, when it was forced to cancel more than 3,000 flights because of the rigorous inspection schedule. The value of company stock has fallen from almost $28 a year ago to its current level of about $9.

The internal memo concerning Flight 48 said that "an air conditioning access panel apparently departed the airplane during the climb out of DFW [Dallas/Fort Worth]."

It added: "The fuel burn on this particular flight... was not much more than any other flight," indicating that there was no special drag on the airplane. The report acknowledges, however, that "there may have been some loud noise" during the flight because of the broken panels.

Also: "The captain took the situation very seriously and only continued the flight after consulting with ground personnel and determining there were no system malfunctions or other indication of continuing problems."

Late Monday, American's corporate communications manager, John Hotard, messaged Tailpipe that the airline "is investigating the incident and until all of the facts are known, we will have no further comment." A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said today that the agency had received a hot line complaint about the incident from an airline employee and that it is under investigation. The hot line is set up for aviation industry employees to report on safety issues.

Pod-Tastic

Frustrated at not being able to get his first novel published, J.C. Hutchins turned the prose into an audio podcast. The first installment of 7th Son, a futuristic sci-fi trilogy, hit the internet in early 2006 — and quickly became something of an international sensation. Hutchins says that 40,000 listeners have tuned in to date. And now, the Deerfield Beach-based writer has inked a contract with St. Martin's Press to publish the first of three books in his 7th Son series, as well as a yet-to-be-named tome. Both books are scheduled for release in 2009.

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