PODCAST: Aging aircraft present challenges to researchers
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See the transcript below:
You’re listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU — the home of Thinkers, Doers, Movers and Shockers — on the Web at wichita.edu.
The recent rupture of the fuselage on a Southwest Airlines flight has raised questions about current testing models and inspections of aging aircraft. The director of the Aging Aircraft Laboratory at the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, Melinda Laubach-Hock, says it’s not easy to predict the aging process.
Laubach-Hock: “The reasons why it’s hard to predict how an aircraft ages is it’s not just calendar age, it’s also the way the aircraft was operated, the way it was maintained, the way it was inspected, the materials used to manufacture it, so there’s a large number of things that go into predicting the useful life of an airplane.”
The average age of general aviation aircraft is just less than 30 years. The use of these aging aircraft is one reason that the FAA manages an Aging Airplane Program and often issues airworthiness directives, aimed at addressing specific safety concerns or unsafe conditions on specific airplane types.
Laubach-Hock explains what the Aging Aircraft Lab at Wichita State is looking for.
Laubach-Hock: “The aging aircraft lab looks at aircraft from a destructive perspective. When we do that we’re looking for cracks, corrosion, mechanical damage, other things that might decrease the useful life of an airframe.”
In doing research, Laubach-Hock says the Aging Aircraft Lab at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research has not found serious safety issues.
Laubach-Hock: “For the research on the airframes that we’ve done for private industry, as well as for the federal government, we’ve found cracks, corrosion, some minor maintenance issues, but we really haven’t found anything that I would think would jeopardize the safety of the aircraft.”
Laubach-Hock explains one of the challenges in studying aging aircraft.
Laubach-Hock: “The challenges we’ve seen when we apply our research is just because we find something on one airplane doesn’t mean it’s representative of the entire fleet.”
So how old is too old for an airplane? It seems like a simple question, at least to those outside of the aviation industry. At what point is a plane too old to fly safely? Unfortunately, it isn’t an easy question to answer, as many factors come into play when determining if an aircraft is still safe to fly. In addition, as parts are replaced, repairs made, and body work performed over the craft’s life, a 30-year-old plane that has been well maintained may actually be safer than a younger plane that hasn’t been treated as well.
Laubach-Hock: “Theoretically, you could fly an airplane forever, but it costs time and money and there becomes a point where it’s just economically feasible to retire the airplane over continuing to use it in service.”
Some might say everything but age is what really matters. To truly measure an aircraft’s age, the hours it has been used and its condition must be taken into account, as each affects the other. In addition, the materials used to construct the plane dramatically affect its useful life, as do the conditions under which it has been flown and the maintenance it has received. In any event, Laubach-Hock says, in spite of some high-profile incidents, flying is safe.
Laubach-Hock: “The main thing I want to reiterate is that flying is safe, even with aging aircraft. We see high-profile issues, but we don’t see them very frequently.”
Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.