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Examining The Safety Of The 767


The 767 is a workhorse of an airplane. It's been flying since 1981. Boeing has made more than a thousand of them. As passenger airlines sell off older members of their fleets, many 767s end up as cargo planes. And it's one of these leased to Amazon that crashed last Saturday near Houston. Three people onboard died. Yesterday, investigators discovered the cockpit voice recorder. We spoke with Todd Curtis, an aviation safety and security analyst and founder of airsafe.com, and asked if the 767 is a safe aircraft.

TODD CURTIS: Generally speaking, yes. This is an aircraft that's been used in military versions, passenger versions, freight versions since the early 1980s. This is an aircraft that's had a lot of experience. It's been through a lot of vetting during the original design phase, as well as throughout its history. So there're, at present, no real issues on the level of the NTSB or the FAA being worried about this airplane.

SIMON: What's known about this specific aircraft that crashed? It was 26 years old. Anything else about its history we know?

CURTIS: Well, this particular aircraft is typical for an older 767. That is, it went through several operators through its lifespan. And in recent years, after it stopped being a passenger airliner, it was converted to being a cargo airliner and had been flying for some time with Atlas Airlines, which, in this case, had the aircraft leased out to Amazon.

SIMON: We don't know if the age of the aircraft was any kind of factor. We don't know if it might have been pilot error. But are there concerns about flying an airplane that's 26 years of age or older?

CURTIS: There was a rather dramatic case a few decades ago where a 737 had part of its cabin tear off in flight in part due to the fact that this aircraft was both an older aircraft and had been used many thousands of times on short flights. That was one of the wake-up calls for the industry that led to a lot of extra inspections of all aircraft. And that sort of problem really hasn't manifested itself again.

SIMON: Isn't metal fatigue a factor?

CURTIS: Metal fatigue is always a factor when an aircraft gets up in age - not just age years but age in years plus how many times the aircraft has been airborne. The easiest analogy I can think of is a toy balloon. If you blow it up once, you probably won't have a problem with the sidewall of the balloon being weak. But if you blow it up and let it deflate, blow it up, let it deflate several dozen times, eventually, there'll be weak spots that will tear open, and the balloon will burst. On a larger scale, that's what happens with an older aircraft that's been put up into the atmosphere and taken down again thousands of times.

SIMON: But presumably, there are tests for that, too, aren't there?

CURTIS: Oh, certainly. Yeah. Even though this aircraft has been in flight for thousands of flights over its lifespan, there are required tests that any aircraft operator has to go through in order to get that aircraft certified to fly in the United States. And for the last several years, this aircraft, though it spent a lot of its time overseas, was a U.S.-registered aircraft. It had to adhere to all the regulations of the FAA.

SIMON: What will you be watching for as this investigation unfolds?

CURTIS: The investigation is only a few days old. And with any investigation of a major airliner crash, although there were eyewitness reports and reportedly a video of the final seconds of the flight, the combination of the wreckage, the data from the aircraft and what was said by the pilots will be instrumental in understanding what happened in the final moments of that aircraft's life.

SIMON: Todd Curtis, aviation safety analyst and founder of airsafe.com, thanks so much for being with us.

CURTIS: Well, thanks again for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO AND BAJKA'S "DAYS TO COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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