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Fri, Mar 21, 2008

Hearing Will Review Death Of El Paso Airline Mechanic

Former FAA Inspector Says Investigation Was Cut Short

The tragic death of an airline mechanic on the ramp at El Paso International Airport has come under scrutiny, after a former FAA inspector said his supervisors at the time rushed their investigation into the matter.

As ANN reported, Donald Gene Buchanan was killed January 16, 2006, as he checked a reported oil leak on a Continental Airlines Boeing 737-500. The contract mechanic was ingested into a turbofan when another mechanic, believing the area around the engine's inlet was clear, told the plane's flight crew to throttle power up to 70 percent.

According to the NTSB Probable Cause report, Buchanan step into the inlet hazard zone as the turbofan spooled up from idle. The Board cited Buchanan's failure to maintain proper clearance with the engine intake during a jet engine run, as well as the failure of contract maintenance personnel to follow written procedures and directives contained in the airline's general maintenance manual, as the primary causes of the accident.

A lack of proper mechanic training by Continental, as well as the failure of the airport to enforce its own rules prohibiting ground run-ups above idle power in the terminal area, were noted as contributing factors.

But that might not be the entire story. Former FAA inspector Phil Thrash came forward recently with accusations the investigation was cut short, and officials with ties to the Continental pilots granted them amnesty in the matter.

"They washed their hands of the whole matter," Thrash told The Dallas Morning News. "It was a cover-up."

Thrash alleges the FAA and Continental deliberately suppressed his questions about the nature of the accident -- specifically, his discovery of a number of safety violations. When he brought the issues to the attention of his supervisor, Thrash says he was told to submit his questions about the investigation to a committee for review.

That committee included a Continental official, and a representative with the pilots' union. In the end, the committee opted to close the case through the voluntary Aviation Safety Action Program... which put an end to Thrash's investigation.

Thrash says he asked the FAA administrator to reopen the investigation, but his request was shot down. He then went to the inspector general... but didn't hear anything further, until he was contacted by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

The former inspector is scheduled to testify April 3 before that committee, led by Representative James Oberstar... who has his own concerns about the relationship between FAA inspectors and the airlines they oversee, and is highly critical of ASAP.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown defended the FAA's handling of the case, noting both the agency's local office and head of flight standards in Washington "agreed that the crew, the flight crew and the pilot met the criteria for this to be handled through the Aviation Safety Action Program.

"The investigation didn't support the kind of action that Mr. Thrash wanted to initiate," she added.

FMI: Read The Probable Cause Report, www.faa.gov, http://transportation.house.gov, www.continental.com

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