CAA finds PIA staff guilty of negligence

Airline admits human error; takes action

By Masood Anwar

KARACHI: Investigations carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) — the watchdog for aviation activities in the country – have proved that the incompetence and inefficiency of the engineering staff of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was behind the incidents of fire in the brakes of newly inducted Boeing 777 planes. The mishaps not only put the life of passengers on board in danger on six different occasions but also tarnished the image of the national flag carrier among international flyers. A PIA spokesperson acknowledged the report and claimed that human error was the cause and that action had been taken against the person responsible.

After the induction of these new 777 planes in March 2004, there have been six accidents of the same nature : fire erupting in the brake assemblies. Out of these six accidents, four took place at Manchester airport alone, while one occured at Lahore airport and another at Toronto, Canada.

The last accident took place on March 1, 2005 at the Manchester airport. Flight PK789, a Boeing 777 from Karachi, landed in Manchester at 9.03am for refuelling on its way to Toronto. As it was taxiing along the runway, the pilot of the aircraft directly behind reported smoke coming from its left undercarriage.

Fire-fighters were called and the 302 passengers and 12 crew on board were evacuated from the aircraft using inflatable emergency slides. The entire operations at Manchester airport were suspended for 15 minutes. Later, the airport was reopened but one runway remained closed.

About eight people were injured and were taken to the hospital. They hurt their ankles and wrists during the rescue operation. “As all the incidents have occurred on newly installed wheel assemblies, therefore it is established that there is a flaw in shop maintenance procedures,” the CAA investigation report said.

During the investigations, it came to light that the staff deployed for handling B-777 planes was not properly trained and there was no record available for their training on assembly of B-777 wheel shop, the report said.

There were two main causes for the fires, the CAA report said. The most serious one was not using the appropriate solvent for the service of brake assemblies in the proper way. “The solvent being used for cleaning of bearing and heat shield is carrier-2 while the demanded solvent is P-D-680. Even the solvent P-D-680 is in category I type while the recommended solvent for B-777 ER are category II and III type,” the report said.

“The justification for use of carrier-2 solvent provided by the concerned chief engineer, power plant, was non-availability of P-D-680 and considering carrier-2 as its equivalent,” the report said.

“As per supervising staff, the cleaning process at manufacturer premises is automated while there is no such facility at the PIA. The mechanics involved in cleaning are not trained and use conventional way of dipping the parts in solvents/kerosene oil. Due to dipping of heat shield covers the solvent gets entrapped inside the covers and glass wool sheet inside the covers gets wet/moisturized with solvent contents. The contents when get heat during braking process emerge as fumes and catch fire,” the CAA findings said.

The CAA also found that the staff working on the service of brake assemblies also did not have the required approvals and the authorities have provided approval in back dates to the CAA investigators.

Manchester was the scene of one of the worst UK aviation disasters when a British Airtours plane caught fire in windy conditions on take-off in August 1985 and more than 50 people died.

Due to the fire just below the fuel tanks, the same accident could have been repeated but it was nature that saved the life of the passengers and crew. After the rescue operations, the investigators in Pakistan and the UK have started their investigations to find the real cause. The repetition of same type of accidents in the new 777 planes stunned the Boeing company and provided a golden opportunity to its arch rival Airbus for a media trial that alleged that Boeing aircraft are not safer for passengers.

The Accidents Investigation Branch (AIB) of the UK, after inquiries into the accident on June 8, mentioned the main cause for the accidents was the use of low category grease that was not advised for the 777 planes.

The PIA was using NYCO 22 type grease. But the Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM) specifies the use of general purpose wide temperature grease with the specification MIL-PRF-81322 for the wheel assembly. It specifically mentions three types: Mobil 28, Aeroshell 22 and Mobil Aviation Grease SHC 100.

On the recommendations of the AIB, PIA assured the usage of specified grease but an accident again took place. Now, the CAA investigators have found another loophole in the service of the brake assemblies.

Contrary to the AMM, the PIA engineering staff is dipping the brake assemblies in the solvent during the service. This solvent is inflammable. There is insulation between the two assemblies that soak the solvent and it catches fire when heated during applying brakes at high speed.

The common factor in all the six accidents was that all of these flights were the first flights after the servicing of the brakes at the engineering shop of PIA in Karachi, a senior official of the CAA pointed out. It seems strange that the PIA engineering staff is not using the AMM, he said and added that the carelessness of the PIA management places a question mark on the safety of passengers.

The PIA spokesperson, Samina Pervez, when asked for comments on the CAA reports, accepted that it was human error on the part of PIA staff. “They did not dry the solvent in a proper way,” she said and added that it was the basic cause of the accidents that had now been removed.

Replying to a question regarding punitive action against responsible persons, she said that we had removed the responsible technician from his place. She denied that there was a chance of fire in the fuel tanks aqnd that the passengers’ lives were at risk.

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