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Breaking News

FAA Inspections Turn Up More Planes Wth Stabilizer Problems

Aired February 11, 2000 - 6:03 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: In the United States, commercial airlines are undergoing a mandated inspection of hundreds of aircraft, checking a key piece of equipment which may be linked to last week's Alaska Air crash.

CNN's Carl Rochelle joins us now with more -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, just learned a short while ago that apparently there have been a number of other airplanes discovered with some sort of problem in the stabilizer trim assembly.

You know, massive inspections have been going on with these planes since the FAA ordered them, mandatory inspections, last evening. And we don't have an exact hard figure yet, but in the neighborhood of a half dozen airplanes of this MD-80 series have been discovered to have a problem in the stabilizer trim assembly area -- roughly a half dozen of that.

Now, let's take a look at this airplane and tell you exactly what we're talking about. This is the stabilizer area here -- the back part of it elevators, the front part of it stabilizer. There is a trim screw that is driven by a motor down in this area. When it drives this elevator-system up, the nose of the airplane goes down. When it drives it down, the nose goes up.

Metal shavings and metal filings have been found in those on at least two, possibly now we are told, three Alaska Airlines' planes, possibly other airplanes flown by Delta, Northwest, Continental. We're trying to check to get absolute firm numbers on this. But it looks like a half dozen or so total airplanes that have this problem and that, of course, is what they are looking into.

No -- back up in traffic yet, because most of these inspections are being done overnight. We are told by the FAA that -- actually by Boeing -- that the inspections should take about three hours each to perform.

So that's what's going on, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Carl, how many planes out there left to inspect? They have not finished inspecting all these airplanes, have they?

ROCHELLE: My guess from the numbers I'm seeing, Judy, is maybe a third of the airplanes have been inspected. I don't have a hard number on that, but they were moving forward in that direction today.

Let me make one other point. There are some new developments in the investigation, too. Overnight, they recovered the gimbal nut. That's the nut that this jack screw that drives this assembly goes down into. And we are told by sources just a few moments ago that the Navy has also recovered some more parts, a significant part of a larger portion of the right and left elevators and an eight-foot section of the outboard right horizontal stabilizer.

So some operations have been going on in that area, too, but roughly 1,100 planes in operation. And we are told that more airplanes have been found with difficulties. The numbers sort of...

WOODRUFF: And there could be more in the future, because the...

ROCHELLE: And there could be more as the inspections...

WOODRUFF: ...the inspections...

ROCHELLE: ... continue. And if they have a large number of them, and then, of course, it could have an effect on transportation. Right now, it hasn't because they haven't found that many. But what happens when they find an airplane with a problem, they take it, disassemble it, pull this trim assembly out of it and replace it with one that doesn't have a problem. Then the aircraft can go back in service. And, of course, they'll want to look very carefully at that assembly to see what caused the problem that is showing up in them, Judy.

WOODRUFF: So, Carl, just to be clear. When do we know -- when -- is there a certain number of days that we have to wait before it's clear?

ROCHELLE: Well, the FAA has mandated all the inspections to be done in three days. That means they'd be done by sometime during the day, probably midnight Sunday they'd have to be completed, because this came out last night, during the night when this order came out. That means any airplane that is not finished inspecting and approved to return to service that Sunday night couldn't fly Monday morning and it would have to sit on the ground until the inspection was completed. And that, if that happens, if there's substantial numbers left, could cause some backup.

WOODRUFF: And one other clarification, Carl. They're not stopping these planes from flying, they are continuing their normal course of business and then taking them out of commission briefly to inspect them. Is that it?

ROCHELLE: That's it exactly.

WOODRUFF: So they haven't grounded all MD-80s.

ROCHELLE: Have not grounded any except the ones they have found a problem with. And when the problem is repaired, they can put them back into service and fly. They're trying to do it at the end of the day so there's no disruption in service. And I should tell you from a safety standpoint, there are procedures in effect if one of the airplanes experiences a trim problem in flight. They have emergency procedures in effect -- get taken care of and get it on the ground. And they updated those procedures after the Alaska Airlines crash, telling crews that you follow the flight manual, you do the checklist to deal with the problem with this horizontal stabilizer trim. If it doesn't enter to the items on the checklist, then you should find a place and land the airplane. Don't continue to try to work on it and cause a problem.

WOODRUFF: All right, Carl Rochelle. Thank you very much for that update. And I know you're going to be staying on that story...

ROCHELLE: You bet.

WOODRUFF: ... as long as it's there. Thank you very much.

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