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November 3, 1996
Mike Fancher / Times executive editor

Boeing's stunning news answers some questions, but raises many more

Michael Fancher mug The headline atop the front page of yesterday's Times probably caught your eyes the way it did mine.

"737 inspections ordered; Boeing admits rudder problem," it said. "Thousand of jets to be checked for jammed part within 10 days. Safety tests likely to be conducted worldwide."

The story reported that the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered the emergency 737 inspections after Boeing acknowledged Friday afternoon for the first time a 737 rudder-control problem that could imperil flights.

A problem with the 737 rudder's control unit capable of causing the rudder to move to its extreme position without a pilot's command and toss the plane into a dive is widely suspected of causing two unsolved 737 crashes: one in Colorado Springs in 1991, which claimed 25 lives, the other near Pittsburgh in 1994, which claimed 132 lives.

The long-running federal investigation of those crashes and the gradual discovery of the potentially fatal flaw in the 737's rudder-control system was the subject of a five-part series of articles that began in The Times last Sunday and concluded Thursday.

The series examined the painstaking process by which investigators have tried to determine the cause of the crashes, and Boeing's largely defensive role in those investigations. It also tried to explain the basis for the National Transportation Safety Board's recent approval of a list of recommended changes, many of which focus on the rudder-control system, intended to improve the 737's overall safety.

As I noted in this space last Sunday, Boeing officials refused to be interviewed for our series of articles. Boeing's position is that they don't trust our veteran aerospace reporter, Byron Acohido, to treat them fairly.

I explained last week that Boeing officials had set a pattern of refusing to answer Acohido's questions before publication, then to complain after publication. I also pointed out that Byron's reporting has consistently held up as both accurate and fair.

That's just as true today as it was last Sunday. Yesterday's stunning news development, including Boeing's own acknowledgment of having discovered a potentially dangerous rudder-control problem, makes that pretty clear.

But you wouldn't know that by listening to Boeing. Let me share a sequence of events and contacts Boeing had with us this week and let you judge for yourself.

On Tuesday, as part three of our series was running, Boeing engineers were conducting a test on a 737 at Boeing Field. The test confirmed a new way - in addition to three other ways federal investigators and an airline mechanic had found before - that a 737's rudder could move either far beyond or in the opposite direction of a command. (We learned later in the week that Boeing engineers first discovered the problem while examining data collected during a different test more than two weeks earlier.)

The next day, Boeing faxed The Times a 2 1/2 page letter from Harold Carr, vice president for public relations and advertising. The letter made no mention of the content of our series. Rather, it was a personal attack on Acohido, claiming he regularly relies "on anonymous 'sources,' obscure 'safety experts' and unidentified 'industry observers' to prove his points, often making it difficult to differentiate between his opinions and that of his 'sources.' "

Carr asked that his letter receive prominent placement in The Times, "preferably in a box on the front page with part five of the series on Thursday."

We didn't do that because Carr's letter didn't address the content of the series, only its reporter. But I included the full text of his letter in the version of this column written for the Weekend Edition of the Sunday Times, which is printed Friday night.

Events changed, as has this column.

About 12:30 p.m. Friday, Boeing faxed us a statement from Charlie Higgins, vice president of airplane safety and performance. We had been told it would respond to our just-completed series and the questions it raised.

Instead, it was a general press release about the safety of the 737 and Boeing's continuing efforts to make it safer. Its only direct reference to what we had published was its first paragraph.

"I hope no one who has read, or even heard about, The Seattle Times' series thinks that Boeing won't answer questions about the safety of the 737 or any other Boeing airplane. . . ," Higgins wrote. "The fact of the matter is, nothing could be farther from the truth."

Boeing asked that we publish the full text of its news release in Sunday's newspaper. We declined, again because it was not responsive to the questions raised by our series.

A couple of hours later, Boeing issued another press release, also based on statements from Higgins. This one acknowledged the problem with the 737's rudder-control system and Boeing's issuance of a "service bulletin" advising 737 operators worldwide to test the system in each plane. The FAA quickly made the tests mandatory.

Boeing had made no mention of its discovery or service advisory when it faxed us the earlier press release that it wanted us to publish. Nor had Boeing engineers told federal investigators the day before when they met as part of the Pittsburgh crash investigation.

Friday afternoon's press release, issued just before 3 p.m. informed reporters that Boeing officials would be available to answer questions via a telephone conference call - in 15 minutes. The result was news reports that mostly relied only on Boeing's press handout. The only real exception was ours, but only because of Acohido's deep understanding of the subject.

Today, we report that Boeing has developed a device to prevent extreme rudder movements during flight and may soon ask airlines to install the device on all existing 737s. A Boeing official acknowledges the company has been discussing such a plan with the FAA, but hasn't decided to implement it. Until now, Boeing has steadfastly defended the safety of the 737 and said there is no need for changes.

These developments raise as many questions as it answers.

How might Boeing's discovery bring federal investigators closer to finding the cause of the Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh crashes, as NTSB chairman Jim Hall said in a statement released about a half-hour after Boeing's on Friday afternoon?

What real assurances will the FAA-ordered tests provide airline passengers concerned about 737 safety? One of the most vexing problems for investigators of the plane's hydraulic power-control system is the transient nature of its operation. The rudder is controlled by the movement of fluid through slides in a valve no larger than a soup can. Problems that can cause extreme uncommanded rudder movements seem to occur almost randomly and have been very difficult to replicate. How will these tests overcome that?

Why didn't Boeing engineers tell NTSB investigators of their discovery when they were together Thursday? Why hadn't they informed them when they first found the problem?

What change is necessary to ensure the safe operation of 737 rudders? How much would that cost? Who would pay?

And what about the NTSB safety recommendations? What is Boeing's analysis of them? Will it support them in light of its own troubling discovery?

I am not our aerospace reporter. When it comes to these news stories about the safety questions surrounding the 737, I'm pretty much just like the rest of you. I travel frequently, usually by plane, often a Boeing 737.

I have read about the tragedies in Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh. I have read in our series about two other 737 crashes in which uncommanded rudder movement is suspected as the cause. While I know the 737 has a better-than-average safety record, I am concerned that too little still is being done on behalf of all of us who fly despite the findings of a thorough, professional safety investigation.

Yet I'm encouraged by Higgins' statement Friday afternoon that we and you are mistaken if we think Boeing won't answer safety questions about the 737, that "nothing could be farther from the truth."

We will pursue those questions with Boeing, and others, first thing tomorrow and report what we learn.

In case you're curious, readers reacted by the hundreds to our series.

Early reaction was evenly split between those who felt it was sensationalistic and those who applauded The Times for its courage.

The hostile comments came from people who felt The Times was on a mission to destroy Boeing just to sell newspapers. They focused on Boeing's accomplishments and its importance to our community. As one said, "No Boeing, no Seattle."

"You can take your paper and shove it," said another caller. "How would you like it if all 80,000 Boeing employees around Puget Sound canceled their subscriptions?"

The supportive comments came from people who felt The Times and Acohido, were doing what we're supposed to do - asking tough questions without fear or favor. That reaction flowed from the belief that something is obviously wrong with the 737 and The Times should continue to push for answers.

"I am a retired Boeing Engineer (July 1995) so you might be surprised that I support your position," wrote a Seattle resident who worked 38 years at Boeing. "I firmly believe that you owe it to the public to provide them with this story."

Obviously, journalism isn't a popularity contest, but we do care about what readers think, which is why we set up a special voice-mail response line for the series (464-2318). Our work doesn't exist in a vacuum, so your comments, whether critical or encouraging, are important.

As the five-part series continued, the response grew more positive. With well over 300 responses, the final tally was about 2-to-1 in favor.

A retired Boeing engineer living in Bellevue and approaching his 80th birthday captured a common theme. He wrote, "Air travelers will breathe a sigh of relief when this enigma is satisfactorily cleared up."

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