October 17, 2005

A Tale of Two Whistles

Hatched by Dafydd

The first whistle we all remember: Joseph Wilson, the proven serial liar who was sent by the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq attempted to purchase yellowcake Uranium from Niger, returned to report that indeed this was likely true -- but then wrote a completely fabricated article for the New York Times on July 6th, 2003, in which, in order to politically damage President Bush, Wilson flatly lied about his own findings.

Yet despite the exposure of these lies by a unanimous, bipartisan Senate committee investigation, Wilson continues to be lionized by the press and by the Michael Moore/MoveOn mob; more to the point, he remains free to wander about, instead of sitting in solemn silence in a dull, dank dock -- and wasn't even fined.

But turn now to a different whistle which blew its tune in a very different concert hall.

According to the Telegraph, a whistleblower who warned of a serious (potentially deadly) cabin-pressure design flaw in the new Airbus A380 now faces not only financial ruin but possible jail time, first because of a criminal lawsuit filed against him by his former employer and also for violating a gag order by talking about his own criminal case.

Joseph Mangan thought he was doing Airbus a favour when he warned of a small but potentially lethal fault in the new A380 super-jumbo, the biggest and most costly passenger jet ever built.

Instead, Europe's aviation giant rubbished his claims, and now he faces ruin, a morass of legal problems, and - soon - an Austrian prison. Mr Mangan is counting the days at his Vienna flat across the street from Schonbrünn Palace, wondering whether the bailiffs or the police will knock first.

Mangan, an American aerospace engineer, was brought in to head up the aerospace team at TTTech Computertechnik, an Austrian company that makes some of the components used in the A380. The A380 is the pride of Europe. It is intended to carry more than 850 passengers and fly at altitudes of 42,000 (flight level 420) -- the Boeing 747, by contrast, carries up to 524 passengers, typically at FL 350 with similar range and speed. Much is riding on the success of the A380, "the symbol of what Europe can achieve," according to French President Jacques Chirac; not only the pride of the EU but also its economic prospects depend upon a successful and timely launch of the huge airliner.

Mangan claims that his team was under tremendous pressure to meet deadline when they decided to change the specifications for the outflow valve control system. Rather than the more usual arrangement of three different systems for safety redundancy, they chose to use four identical valves.

The problem is that if an event occurs that causes one of the valves to fail, the other three may simultaneously fail for the same reason. In that case, the cabin would experience sudden catastrophic loss of air pressure. Since irreparable brain damage can occur after four minutes without oxygen, and since it takes two and a half minutes to descend from 420 to 250 (where ambient air is breathable), the flight crew would have to notice the problem and begin the descent within ninety seconds -- and among the first symptoms are inattentiveness, poor judgment, and loss of motor coordination (as I can attest from personal experience).

Any delay could result in neural damage or even death among hundreds of passengers and crew... and could even result in the aircraft crashing, if the pilots pass out: loss of cabin air pressure is considered a primary cause of a crash of a Boeing 737 over Greece this last August.

Once TTTech changed to the new valve design, they were obliged to report that change to the testing agencies, who might have to begin certification all over again. Mangan charges that the team failed to get the new design recertified, which could have taken as long as two years; the A380 was already six months behind schedule and $1.8 billion over budget. Instead, Mangan alleges,

TTTech falsely classified its micro-chip as a simple "off-the-shelf" product already used in car valves in order to except it from elaborate testing rules, he claimed. This would breach both EU and US law on aircraft regulation. "I refused to sign off on the test results, but TTTech went ahead anyway," he claimed. The key papers relate to the TTPOS operating system and were allegedly dated August 24 2004.

A number of agencies appear to have accepted or seriously considered Mangan's charge, which he first made in September 2004; he first raised the issue with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the EU equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration here in the United States.

[O]fficials at the air safety watchdog EASA said they took the concerns "extremely seriously". An EASA source told the Telegraph that the agency was "able to confirm certain statements by Mr Mangan".

A probe - conducted by the French authorities for EASA - allegedly found that TTTech was "not in conformity" with safety rules and had failed to carry out the proper tests. The key microchip was deemed "not acceptable". EASA instructed Airbus to sort out the problem before the final certification of the A380 next year. It is unclear whether this has now been done. EASA has refused to comment publicly on the details of the dispute, prompting concerns at the European Parliament. Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian Green MEP, wrote an "urgent" letter to the agency last month demanding "prompt and extensive information on the matter".

Had this chain of events happened in the U.S., the FAA would immediately have frozen deployment of the aircraft until the issue was investigated. Several agencies would have gotten themselves involved and there might even have been hearings in the Aviation subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. (In fact, such hearings might still be a good idea before A380s are allowed to fly in the United States.)

Instead, the response in the European Union was markedly different. TTTech filed a lawsuit alleging both civil and criminal defamation under Austrian law, and the judge in the case issued a gag order, which Mangan says prohibited him from talking even to the EASA or other aviation safety officials. While the trial drags on, the A380 is nearing debut -- without any changes, corrections, or retesting done on the valve system, Mangan says.

This violates my duty to the public. People could die on that plane if they don't fix the problem," he said.

TTTech denies that there is any problem and denies that any of its elements covered up or failed to disclose any significant design changes. They say that Mangan has inflicted "severe damage" to their corporate reputation by making unsubstantiated claims about safety problems. They refer to him as disgruntled, say he never fit into the team, and that he is motivated by revenge.

There seems little interest within the European political community in helping Mangan defend against the criminal charge or even to evaluate his claims, despite support from the EASA. He is bankrupt, was fined $180,000 (which he could not pay) for violating the gag order, faces a year in jail for that violation -- and still faces the possibility of even more time in jail or prison for speaking out in the first place, even before the gag order.

Too bad. If only he had thought to embed his charges inside a diatribe against George Bush, as Joe Wilson did, the EU would hail him as a Hero of the People.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 17, 2005, at the time of 5:44 PM

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