April 2nd, 2008
05:30 PM ET

Pilots: Cockpit dangers being ignored

Editor's note: Check out Drew Griffin's report on CNN.com.
He'll have the full story tonight on 360° at 10p ET.

FORT WORTH, Texas (CNN) – Regulators have largely ignored a series of dangerous incidents in which cockpit windshields in commercial airliners shattered in mid-flight, sometimes forcing emergency landings, according to an American Airlines pilots' group.

Since 2004, at least 10 windshields have had problems on Boeing 757s, mostly the result of wiring problems with windshield heaters that cause smoke to fill the cockpit and sometimes make those windshields crack, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Four incidents have been on American Airlines planes, the NTSB says.

An American Airlines flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made an emergency landing on January 30 this year after the cockpit filled with smoke.


Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

Filed under: Drew Griffin • FAA
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Ester Wagmaister

    We wait patiently in long security check lines, we take off our shoes, belts, we place coins, watches, cell phones, computers, jackets in a container, we pass through a metal detector, we carefully place small items in a plastic bag for inspection, we are not allowed to bring liquids, gels, a bottle of water, but we are allowed to board unsafe planes.
    What are they thinking?

    April 3, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  2. diane

    I was on a USAirways flight, Feb. 10, 2008, late afternoon, from Omaha, NE to Phx., AZ. We were buckled in, cleared, and ready to go when the scene changed. We found ourselves delayed for what we later found out was a cracked windshield. The long delay was due to the fact that the crack was reported to "higher ups" and engineering- who would make the decisaion to let the plane fly, or not. It was explained that a digital photo was taken and eventually sent to Phx. engineers would examined the size and shape of the crack. It was determined that the crack, and therefore the plane was not within tolerance levels. The flight was cancelled, passengers de-planed, were reassigned or re-routed. It was inconvenient but I'm glad the decision NOT to fly was made. Safety first as far as I'm concerned. I also appreciaited the pilots honesty in reporting what the circumstances were once the flight attendant noticed the crack and pointed it out to the pilots.

    April 3, 2008 at 2:27 pm |
  3. Julie San Diego, CA

    Hey Drew,
    Thanks for keeping the comments open for awhile so that those of us in the Tivo Nation can participate too.
    Your report is, borrowing a word the politicians like to use, "troubling", but you're just grazing the tip of the iceberg here.
    First off, the wiring problem sounds pretty easy to fix. The fact that the windshield is cracking tells me that there's a huge temperature differential between the freezing outside air and the heated windshield, probably meaning the heater is getting too much current. Thick black smoke in an electrical fire tends to be burning wire insulation, also meaning too much current. Also, aging glass tends to crack more easily. (Think wine glasses sent through the dishwasher "hot" cycle too many times – eventually they crack due to repeated thermal cycling).
    I'd bet that an aging electrical component that's supposed to regulate the current has broken down (probably a transistor or integrated circuit – all semiconductors tend to fail "open"). If so, this component needs to be reevaluated or changed out on a regular maintenance schedule. For a system so critical as that, I'd add a second circuit breaker and an indicator light that would automatically shut the windshield heater down and warn the pilots in the event of an overcurrent situation.
    Yes, the windshield would ice and obscure visibility, but the pilots can fly by instrument if they have to; they do it all the time when they can't see through the clouds, rain, etc.
    This is not rocket science, people. These problems can be fixed relatively easily if airline management gives your average Dilbert engineer the go-ahead to do it. I'm betting some my fellow Dilbert's have already engineered the fix, they just need the higher-ups permission to implement it.
    Back to my "tip of the iceberg" comment. Great story, Drew, but that little icecube you ran your boat into is much bigger below the surface of the water. The real problem is that most airlines are outsourcing their aircraft maintenance and repair OVERSEAS (read: non-secure facility, workers who don't speak English well and don't understand instructions, personnel who have no moral interest in giving 100% performance 100% of the time because they and their loved ones will probably never fly on these planes).
    Let's see an investigation on the outsourcing of aircraft maintenance.
    Thanks. Tell Anderson I like the checked shirt.

    April 3, 2008 at 1:54 pm |
  4. George

    The FAA management and the airline management are in bed together. I worked for USAir for 18 years as a airframe and powerplant mechanic. Most of it was great, but when bankruptcy became a problem the airline cut maintenance. Supervisors would pencil whip paperwork, (ex. the log book of the aircraft). I was working 3rd shift line maintenance and we had a boeing 757 with the windshield delaminating beyond the manufactures limits. We were given the OK to change the glass . We removed the fasteners that held the windshield in place and turned the job over to day shift. The dayshift manager signed the item and the daylight mechanics put the fasteners back in the old windshield. The FAA was contacted and not a thing was done about it.

    April 3, 2008 at 7:32 am |
  5. Jack R.

    I am a pilot for a major airline and I agree that the problem should have been dealt with alot faster and am surprised that an airworthiness directive was not issued by now to fix this. But, I would like to know what the heck you people are talking about outsourcing maintenance to foriegn countries??? All of my airline's maintenance is done in the US, and can only be performed by FAA certified maintenance persons. This is the same for all other US air carriers. It is true that some maintenance is outsourced but to private US companies with the same certified technicians. I would love to hear someone substantiate these claims with a reference to back it up.

    April 3, 2008 at 1:36 am |
  6. Sam

    First thing CNN and the american public may not know is that the "cozy" relationship of the FAA and Airlines was built into the system by design and the first mission statement even mentioned a commitment to support and encourage the "industry"

    Also is anybody aware that the former CEO (yes they think they are a business, not a govt regulatory agency– another break with reality)
    was RUSS CHEW, a former American Airlines executive???
    Didnt anyone think that was a bit strange to hire him?? No, it was considered just fine, and it fostered just the kind of corruption that has come to pass.

    April 3, 2008 at 1:18 am |
  7. Steven

    Hi there,
    As a 757/767 pilot for a U.S major airline I can tell you that this is and has always been an issue in the industry for years. The window heater overheating is common on a lot of the models in question. I have personally experienced the problem in flight. Fortunately is was a non event, however it does get your attention. We as pilots have warned and warned of the problems we see that never get addressed when it comes to the safety of the airplane. This has taken years. Unfortunately it takes a disaster to open the eyes of the powers that be. As for the FAA/Airline relationship. Its nation wide folks. A lot of the airlines are in bed with the FAA not just Southwest. It sucks money is the bottom line and safety sits in the back seat. Please be assured that the pilot groups are not at fault and we continue to push for higher maintenance standards every day. If we see something that isnt right to us before a flight we are not flying that airplane and it is logged. Thanks for reporting on this topic.

    April 3, 2008 at 12:47 am |
  8. Lee Johnson

    I gave up General Aviation flying in 1983 after about 15 years and 1400 hours of flying. I earned Commercial Pilot, Intrument, Multi-engine, Flight Instructer ratings. I became firmly convinced the FAA doesn't care abour saftey, if the did:

    1. All aircraft would be painted bright yellow or orange, not Sky Blue, Cloud White, or Fog Grey.

    2. Single engine planes would not be allowed to fly at night or on instruments as is the case with Canada, Mexico, and lots of other countries.

    3. FAA Commissioners would not be allowed to come from the Airlines or Aircraft Manufacturers, where most of them come from.

    4. For at least the last 40 years, 600-700 people die in General Aviation aircraft accidents (that two 747 crashes a year!), but the FAA doesn't do anything about it!

    5. Twin engine, piston driven aircraft are uncontrolable if one engine quits on takeoff due to one engine pulling and the other dragging because aircraft manufactures don't make the virticle tail big enough to overcome the uneven thrust. If they did, the aircraft would go so slown that nobody would by them. Why does the FAA allow this?

    6. Single engine planes use an exhaust manifold heater to heat the cabin. If the exhaust pipe develops a crack or pinhole, carbon monoxide is pumped into the cockpit, killing every one. Why does the FAA allow this?

    The list goes on and on. The FAA doesn't give a damn about safety!


    April 3, 2008 at 12:07 am |
  9. Tom

    I've been a pilot for 18 years, and granted cracked or shattered windshields aren't safe but it is not going to make a plane crash niether. Worst case the cabin depressurizes and the pilots land the aircraft safely. British Airways Flight 5390 had their windshield blow out and due to a loose seatbelt the captain was almost sucked out. BA5390 was a worst case type scenario and everyone was fine including the captain. It is frustrating to see the media continually blow aviation way out of proportion, sending a lot of fear and hype into the flying public. 10 windshields in four years and how many jets flying on a daily basis? I was driving down the interstate when my side window shattered and almost caused me to hit the rail out initial shock, I haven't stopped driving and flying remains to be the safest mode of transportation, therefore I will continue to fly to the end of what will end up being a 48 year career.

    April 2, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
  10. Chris

    Great comments John, well stated and true. Safety and a $60 seat are a dangerous mix. I've changed a few of those 757 windshields and know for certain that they take abuse but are proven safe. Most of the time, the heat is left on 24/7.

    April 2, 2008 at 11:04 pm |
  11. Penlanta Properties

    As an airline pilot with a bachelor's degree in Professional Aeronautics, the heart of the problem is that the FAA has a DUAL role to promote air safety AND promote air commerce. When choosing between the two, promoting air commerce always wins out. Please look into this.

    April 2, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  12. Bruce Barnes

    This is another fine mess those Republican voters have gotten us into. When are regulators going to start working for the American people instead of the Republican Party?

    April 2, 2008 at 10:54 pm |
  13. Chris

    It is a common occurance on all aircraft with heated glass windshields. The safety factors built in obviously work. The real problem with airline safety is aircraft maintenance outsourcing.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:51 pm |
  14. Chris Daly

    The smoke and potential for a cockpit fire are the more immediate safety concerns.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:37 pm |
  15. Robert Austin

    Southwest Airlines not only wines and dines FAA officials and inspectors but wine and dines Air Trafic Control personel as well. That is why other airline's planes are sometimes required to pull to the side while a Southwest Airline plane is given takeoff priority. It gets the Air Traffic Control guy free drinks and who knows what else.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:34 pm |
  16. Chris Daly

    This is not a new problem. In the 1970's the T-39 (North American Aviation Sabreliner) went through a similar spat of windscreen failures. The KC-135 (Boeing 707), C-9 (McDonald Douglas DC-9), F/FB-111 by General Dynamics and others have all suffered from this problem. I would be surprised if there is an aircraft – civilian or military – with a heated windscreen that has not had an occasional controller malfunction and have the window crack due it overheating of the imbedded wires that heat the windows. There have not been any catastrophic failures (explosive decompressions) that I am aware of. This is not to say that this is not a serious problem. It should have been addressed sooner, both by the airlines and FAA. However, if you buy everything based on low bid you get an occasional problem batch.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  17. John

    What the most irritating thing about this all is that we,(passengers), demand dirt cheap tickets AND safe aircraft. They both can't happen.
    Aircraft and everything associated with them is very expensive. 95%
    of the heavy aircraft maintenance is performed overseas. There is little to no oversight and the work is unsafe. The airlines still make there money, even with the rising cost of fuel. They have to cut corners somewhere. Skilled American aircraft mechanics are expensive to pay. The FAA needs to put a stop the outsourced maintenance and suck up some financial losses. If we lose a few large airlines, who cares, there will still be flights.
    It is better than losing lives at the cost of $$$$$$$$$$$.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:23 pm |
  18. Jane Sullivan Horne

    I was recently on a Skybus flight from Greensboro, North Carolina to Florida when the windshield "shattered", as described by our pilot. We were NEVER told anything regarding why or what they intended to do other than issue a refund....please keep following this story and let us know what is being done to prevent something catastrophic!

    Thank you!

    April 2, 2008 at 10:23 pm |
  19. Margie

    Is this a result of "Outsourcing" the maintenance of airplanes to countries who do not speak english? The FAA repair instructions are printed in english.I have not heard anyone mention this even tho it is well known to everyone except the media.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:22 pm |
  20. KB

    Hi Anderson,

    Guess we can add the FAA to the growing list of corrupt government agenicies, NIH, FDA, AMA...I'm not a fan of Kevin Trudeau, but, he's right. It's all about the money! If anybody thinks their lives are protected by any of these agencies, they are sadly mistaken! I'm a Flight Attendant, not exactly encouraging news, but no surprise either. If a Political Race can be bought, why not governmental agencies? Everything has a price. Oil Companies, and the Bush Admininstration. Obama, and Oprah. Ect...Ect...Ect. Money speaks...I'm sure it will be no problem, for someone with Senator Obama's vast experience. No need for concern!

    April 2, 2008 at 10:18 pm |
  21. Gabe Vargas - El Paso

    They are thousands of feet in the air, things are bound to go wrong. I am sure that the airline has looked into the problem but I feel that 10 windshields in 4 years is a good ratio.

    April 2, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  22. Annie Kate

    Why is it that every time there is a problem involving more than a few airplanes that nothing is done until the problem becomes undeniable or there is an accident with loss of life? The first time something like this happens a root cause analysis should have been done and then analyzed to determine if it was something that was confined to one plane or could affect many planes. Corrective action should start immediately – how many times in the past years have we watched the remains of a tragic airplane crash and then found out that it was caused by a problem with the airplane that had been known but not rectified? I know it costs money and time to fix the planes but isn't it cheaper to do that than to pay all the lawsuits that come after a crash?

    The aiirlines charge us a pretty penny to fly; they should be as interested in our lives and safety as they are our billfolds.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 2, 2008 at 9:03 pm |
  23. Tammy

    Cockpit windows cracking, absent air marshalls, TB on the plane... Where's the train schedule? Jeez. If I chose to live in fear of the miniscule occurrences you report on this program, I'd never fly again (or I'd be stoned on Xanbars and Scotch every time I boarded a plane). I guess you have to report on this, panic America, and feel you've all made the world a bit safer. As for me, I'll go with the you don't die before it's your time theory and expand my energy focusing on the things you should be (like the economy, education, healthcare, and moral decline in our nation).

    April 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm |
  24. Lilibeth

    As with any story involving a lack of responsibility by authorities we depend on, I hope it doesn't take a loss of lives to occur before something is done.

    Edmonds, Washington

    April 2, 2008 at 6:03 pm |
  25. Theresa Defino

    I was on a plane in January and this happened. At 33,000 feet. I have a photo of the cockpit. I contacted USAIR and was told it was no big deal. That is NOT what the pilot told us; he made it seem as if we could die.
    I would love to tell my full story.

    April 2, 2008 at 5:59 pm |
  26. Cindy

    It seems to me that the FAA and American Airlines would have done something before now to try and figure out what was causing the windshields to crack and smoke to fill the cockpit. It seems ludicrous to me that they would allow these planes to still fly not knowing the cause and if and when it would happen again. There could have been a horrific crash with many lives lost because of their lackadaisical attitudes! Thankfully nothing happened! I hope they figure out the cause soon.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    April 2, 2008 at 5:44 pm |
  27. Diane Glasser

    A simple question has the NTSB checked out the company that made the glass windshields for the airplanes? If so did they check to see that they were made to the specifications required and if not what has been done? I was planning on flying this summer and now will take the train instead. I guess the executives of the airlines have decided that outsourcing jobs and manufacturing of products and equipment keeps them in the black and to hell with the safety of the American passenger. Diane G, PA

    April 2, 2008 at 5:39 pm |