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Engineer tells travelers not to worry about fuselage cracks

Posted April 4, 2011

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— A former North Carolina State University professor and expert in materials science said Monday that travelers shouldn't worry about cracks in the bodies of commercial airliners.

Charles Manning said cracks that result from metal fatigue are a part of life. For the past 30 years, he has headed Accident Reconstruction Analysis Inc., an engineering consulting firm that performs failure analysis and accident reconstruction. Before that, he was a materials science professor at N.C. State, and he also headed NASA's Langley Advanced Materials Research Program.

"It can happen with everyday things. Take a paper clip and bend it back and forth. It's going to break," Manning said.

A 5-foot-long hole tore open Friday in the passenger cabin roof of a Southwest Airlines plane shortly after it took off from Phoenix on its way to Sacramento, Calif. The plane made an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Ariz., but no one was hurt.

Southwest then grounded 79 other Boeing 737-300 planes to inspect them. Small cracks were found in the fuselages of three other planes, while 19 inspected aircraft showed no problems and were returned to service. The rest of the inspections are expected to be finished by Tuesday.

Manning said that pressurizing cabins during flights so that passengers and crew can breathe comfortably stretches the metal skin of an aircraft in and out. Over time, he said, the metal wears down and cracks.

Graphic of pressurized aircraft cabins Engineer tells travelers not to worry about fuselage cracks

Airlines try to find cracks during routine maintenance inspections, but they usually aren't found until they are more severe, he said.

"A fatigue crack, you can't see the darn thing. They're so small, I mean, I have to look at it with my microscope," he said.

Still, Manning said, when a crack in the fuselage becomes a tear, it isn't likely to bring down a plane.

"The plane won't come apart," he said. "What will happen is that you'll lose pressurization."

The Federal Aviation Administration puts airliners on a very tight maintenance schedule, he said, and manufacturers constantly test aircraft to help determine when and where parts are likely to experience fatigue.

"I think planes are maintained as well as you can, and if the FAA sees that people are not doing it, they get after them," Manning said.

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  • 6079 SMITH W Apr 5, 2011

    Don't mean to be a smart-CENSORED, but the culprit behind the Comet was punching rivets through the skin, instead of drilling the holes. The fatal flaw in one of the two planes actually started on top of the plane. Reconstruction techniques and aircraft accident forensics were pioneered from this disaster, sponsored by none other than Winston Churchill himself.(along with the financial backing of the British taxpayer) Check out YOUTUBE for a really good documentary on this, JoCo Gun Owner. ;)

  • Arapaloosa Apr 5, 2011

    "For an engineer, he has apparently never read about the de Havilland Comet airliner."

    Evidently, neither have you. The Comet's problem was a design flaw- the square windows caused the problem, and that's why no airliner since then has had square windows.

  • Viewer Apr 5, 2011

    He seems to have forgotten the 1988 Aloha Airlines incident in which cracks lead to part of the roof opening up. One stewardess was sucked out of the airplane and many others on board were injured.

  • DontLikeTheSocialistObama Apr 4, 2011

    Flying is still safer than driving on I-40 between Raleigh and RTP during rush hour.

    Not only do you have drivers who aren't qualified to drive at high speeds (most drivers), you also have cars that aren't always maintained well either.

  • protestthis Apr 4, 2011

    Great stuff - you'll have all the nuts coming out saying that 1) the FAA needs more oversight over the airlines 2) double the amount of maintenance (with a microscope this time) or 3) replace the the planes sooner. All of which = much higher ticket prices - hope you all got your travel done now - you won't be able to afford it later.

  • MyNameIsMud Apr 4, 2011

    For an engineer, he has apparently never read about the de Havilland Comet airliner.

  • oleguy Apr 4, 2011

    Wheelman I agree, They will not print what I really think,,, So he can have my seat also

  • Wheelman Apr 4, 2011

    Well he can have my seat on the next one that is coming apart at the seams.

  • Servent Apr 4, 2011

    You can get cheap seats, sunroof seating is 50% off