The recent breaking of a passenger window on a Fairchild Aircraft Corp. plane in flight over Olympia is part of an ongoing cockpit- and cabin-window problem for the company's small airplanes, says a Federal Aviation Administration certification official in Texas, where the planes are made.
The window problem may be unique to Fairchild's small aircraft, including the one on which a passenger was nearly sucked out when the window broke while the plane was over Olympia three weeks ago, says the FAA official, Michele M. Owsley.
Owsley certifies the design, production and airworthiness of Fairchild's small airplanes for a five-state area.
``I'm not aware of window problems with other small aircraft,'' Owsley said in a recent telephone interview. ``Having been sensitive to this issue for the past few years, I probably would have noticed (other planes with problems).''
Bob Kennison, assistant to the president of Fairchild Aircraft Corporation, said yesterday that while he respects Owsley's analytical ability, he doesn't know if Fairchild has a bigger problem than other companies concerning windows in its planes.
Kennison explained that in 1987 Fairchild Industries sold Fairchild Aircraft Corp. to a Los Angeles investment firm. Fairchild Aircraft Corp. filed for bankruptcy in February and is operating under a trusteeship.
Concern over windows on the Fairchild planes arose after an in-flight-injury incident in 1988, said Owsley. The incident, in which a cockpit window blew out, prompted an FAA ``airworthiness directive'' outlining mandatory inspections of windows to detect cracks that might cause catastrophic failure in flight.
The FAA airworthiness directive states that ``to prevent failure of the cockpit and cabin windows'' owners of the Fairchild planes are required to inspect windows every 2,500 hours in service (about every five months).
The incident near Olympia occurred May 23 and involved a Fairchild Metro III turbo-prop owned by Horizon Air, which operates 33 Metro III planes.
As the plane flew 14,000 feet over Olympia on a flight from Portland to Seattle, a cabin window broke out. Gale Sears, 38, of Portland, was nearly sucked out of the plane. Sears' head and right shoulder were sucked out through the 10-by-14-inch window when it broke. Two passengers, including a Horizon pilot, held onto Sears when the window blew out.
The plane, carrying 18 passengers and two crew members, landed safely at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Sears was treated for shock and various cuts at Highline Community Hospital and released.
It isn't known why the window broke. Window tests are being conducted in Texas and could be complete this week, said Debra Eckrote of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Horizon Air spokeswoman Nancy Hamilton, when asked about Owsley's concerns, said, ``We really haven't experienced a (window) problem. This was an isolated incident.''
After last month's Horizon window breakage, Horizon voluntarily inspected the windows on all of its Fairchild planes after the window blew out of one of its planes last month. Only one window was replaced because of a ``blemish,'' Hamilton said.
Although testing continues, local FAA officials indicate a piece of ice might have been flung at the window by a propeller. Whether it was a piece of ice or a rock picked up on the ground during taxiing, the incident could lead to the requirement of double pane windows, local FAA officials have said.
Owsley agreed and explained how the design of the plane may be contributing to the cracking of cabin windows:
``My impression is that the proximity of the propeller to the window is closer on this airplane than it is on most airplanes,'' she said,adding that the propeller's location specifically endangers the cabin windows closest to it.
In the Horizon Air incident last month, the window closest to the propeller is the ``number two'' window on the right side of the plane, said Owsley. Sears was sitting at that window.
Installing aluminum windows in locations closest to the propellers could be a solution to the problem, Owsley said.
Suspected problems with design and installation may contribute to the troubles associated with the windows in Fairchild's smaller planes, Owsley said.
``Part of it seems to be installation problems, people not doing proper installation . . . either at the factory or the field,'' said Owsley. ``The windows have drilled holes . . . the holes are drilled into the window on installation. The holes need to be there, but if they are not carefully drilled they may cause cracking. That's one of the several problems involved.''
The cockpit side windows seem to crack more often, said Owsley. She feels the design of the windows - which curve in two different directions - may be the problem.
It was a September 1988 incident involving a cockpit window that prompted the FAA to issue its airworthiness directive. In that incident, which occurred in the Midwest, a Fairchild airplane ``experienced failure on the co-pilot side while cruising at 17,000 feet. Failure resulted in injuries to the co-pilot,'' according to Owsley.
At that time, FAA reports showed 18 acrylic windows and seven non-acrylic windows on Fairchild SA226 and SA227, or Metro III, planes had either cracked or broken completely, she said.
In seven of those cases involving the acrylic windows, said Owsley, the planes had flown less than 1,000 hours, and in several others less than 10,000.
The Fairchild plane involved in the blowout over Olympia last month was new and only recently had been delivered to Horizon. The plane had 700 hours of flying time.
Federal officials can recall only one other case in which a cabin window blew out completely while a Fairchild plane was in flight. That occurred in 1988 in Europe.
``The passenger's arm went out the window and his hand went into the propeller,'' said Owsley, adding that the break involved the number two window - the same involved in the Horizon incident.
The FAA keeps track of a variety of information dealing with air travel. Some of the data is compiled in ``service difficulty reports.'' Service difficulty reports for the Metro III Fairchild aircraft reveal numerous incidents, including:
-- June 24, 1986: The left cockpit-side window shattered at 21,000 feet.
-- Sept. 21, 1988: The co-pilot-side window sustained a 10-inch crack while in flight.
-- Dec. 22, 1988: During cabin window inspection, nine windows were found to be cracked, seven of them seriously enough to require replacement ``prior to further flight.'' Two of the windows had 12-inch cracks.
-- Jan. 30, 1989: Shortly after takeoff, the inner glass pane of the pilot's window cracked.
-- April 30, 1990: During the inspection of cabin windows, two windows were found to have cracks beyond allowable limits. One window had a one-inch crack; the other had a crack about eight inches long.
Fairchild has made about 300 Metro III planes like the one involved in the incident in Washington last month, according to Fairchild's Kennison.The company continues to manufacture the small planes.
INCIDENT ON HORIZON AIR FLIGHT 2300
At 8:45 a.m. May 23, flying at 14,000 feet, the plane's second window on the right side blew out, and the nearest passenger of 18 aboard was nearly pulled out.
Horizon operates 33 Metroliners. The plane involved in the window incident was only a few months old.
Wing span: 57 feet
Cruising speed: 320 mph
Engines: Two Garrett turboprops