Flight Risk

A <i>Mother Jones</i> investigation into the safety of Boeing Aircraft

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“I have no intention of talking,” Boeing manager John Musil told Mother Jones when we called him in September. Musil’s colleague Robert Hayes said his boss told him not to breathe a word. Their associate John Bohon quickly hung up his phone. Even the lawyers wouldn’t return telephone calls.

They had a lot to be quiet about.

Allegations coming out of a Wichita, Kansas, courtroom in the case of U.S. ex rel Smith v. Boeing and Ducommun were suggesting the unthinkable: potential safety hazards involving hundreds of Boeing aircraft built with Ducommun parts, hazards serious enough that plaintiffs in the case were contending that “Boeing aircraft with Ducommun unapproved parts are not airworthy, are not safe, and must be grounded.”

Smith v. Boeing was filed in federal court by Taylor Smith, Jeannine Prewitt, and James Ailes, all former internal auditors at the aircraft company. They accuse Boeing of accepting unapproved and unsafe parts from Ducommun, a supplier based in Carson, California, and installing them on 32 jets built for the government. Because their suit is legally restricted to planes sold to the government, it refers only to military aircraft. But Mother Jones has ascertained that the alleged structural flaws in “flight safety critical” parts would likewise threaten the airworthiness of civilian planes including commercial 737s manufactured between 1994 and 2001. Civilian 747s, 757s, and 767s made through 2004 may also have unapproved parts. In fact, in a motion to dismiss the case, Ducommun actually argues that the company thought the parts sold to Boeing were going to be used only in nonmilitary aircraft. Ducommun declined to discuss the matter. Boeing said the allegations are false and that all its airplanes are safe. The company declined to comment on internal memos entered in the case that confirm problems with Ducommun parts.

But fears about the safety of the nation’s air fleet extend beyond the confines of the courtroom. “We’re very concerned about this,” says Tomaso DiPaolo, national aircraft certification representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “What we don’t know is how this really affects the commercial fleet, and whether the FAA has been notified or if Boeing took appropriate steps to fix the problems or mandate repetitive inspections. If any of these parts fail, you can compromise the aircraft.”

Smith, Prewitt, and Ailes say they first uncovered the safety violations while investigating defective parts from Ducommun, and that their efforts to point out the problems were initially praised by Boeing supervisors. Prewitt was recognized for her outstanding performance in a note from then-Boeing vice president and Wichita general manager Jeff Turner.

The whistleblowers reported an array of defects in 11 parts that Boeing uses to construct fuselages, among them: bear straps, which surround and support doorways, and chords, which act as the ribs of the fuselage. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Pentagon classify these parts as “flight safety critical,” which means that failure of any of them could cause a crash. The FAA defines parts as “unapproved” (known within the industry as “bogus”) if they have not been subject to the requisite quality-control procedures or if they vary from the agency’s approved manufacturing plan.

Some of the allegations involve inspection failures and lack of proper record keeping on quality control, but others claim that Boeing was actually using parts that were “improperly contoured, had shy-edge margins and incorrectly drilled holes.” The auditors also claim that Ducommun used two sets of books to hide its fraud, that Boeing knew for years that many of Ducommun’s parts were bogus, and that Boeing personnel deleted from company records a report explaining how severe the problems were and noting a need to “begin disengagement” with Ducommun.

When the evidence began indicting Boeing’s own quality-control deficiencies, the auditors say, they were told to forget they ever saw anything wrong. In a deposition filed in July, Terry L. Haas, a recently retired procurement agent for Boeing, said that his supervisor, John Musil, asked him if he could “lose” a document referring to its internal investigation. “I informed Mr. Musil that I felt that ‘losing’ the document would be unethical, and I refused to do so,” Haas said. “I turned over to Mr. Musil approximately 11 1/2 to 12 inches of documents pertaining to the Boeing tooling audit and Boeing’s claim for an adjustment from Ducommun…. I made sure that I had several witnesses [who] knew that I delivered the documents to Mr. Musil.” Musil, for his part, said he never intended to withhold the documents and that he, in fact, turned them over to the Boeing legal team.

When the whistleblowers pushed for corrective action, according to the lawsuit, they were threatened and demoted. Subsequently, they sued, after which two say they were forced to leave the company. Prewitt also filed a wrongful termination suit, which is pending. The Department of Justice, which has the right to intervene in a whistleblower case such as this one, declined to do so. But, significantly, it did not move for a dismissal, preserving its right to intervene at a later date, signaling that the government believes the case has potential merit. The decision to wait on the sidelines was predicated in part on the Air Force’s assurance that the aircraft were safe, and that the agency would have accepted them even if the problems had been disclosed. But Mother Jones has learned that there was internal dissent within the FAA as to how safe the aircraft with the 11 allegedly bogus parts really are. Critics were especially concerned about possible hazards as the planes age.

Says one longtime FAA inspector who recently retired, “these are parts whose failure could cause a catastrophic event.”


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