From Very British Subjects:

Blog by Peter Troy

ptroy@fsbdial.co.uk

 

Thursday, October 20

Airbus whistleblower faces prison

By Ambrose Pritchard-Evans

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.

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Instead, Europe’s aviation giant rubbished his claims, and now he faces ruin, a mass 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.

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An American aerospace engineer, he has discovered that Austria offers scant protection to whistle blowers. Bankrupt, he is surviving with his wife and three children on gifts of food from fellow Baptists in Vienna.

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Having failed to stump up a £100,000 fine for breaching a court gagging order, he now faces a year behind bars.

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His troubles began in September 2004 when he contacted the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), claiming that the cabin pressure system in the A380 might not be safe, and that this had been concealed. Mr Mangan’s message was not one that Europe wanted to hear, least of all from a garrulous American who jabbers aviation techno-babble at machine-gun speed.

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TheA380 is the world’s most ambitious aircraft, fruit of a joint effort by the French, Germans, British and Spanish. A double-decker giant, it can carry up to 856 passengers at 42,000 feet. “The symbol of what Europe can achieve,” said French President Jacques Chirac as the aircraft completed its faultless maiden flight this April.

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Airbus has overtaken Boeing, snatching 57per cent of the big jet market. It employs 52,000 staff, a fifth in Britain, where the wings are built. Not everybody is convinced that Airbus is wise to stake so much on a project loaded with new technologies.

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The A380 uses glass laminates for the plane’s fusilage, and questions have arisen as to whether the material might degrade under ultra-violet radiation. Airbus insists not. But any hint of hubris in one area spreads doubts about others, which is why Mr Mangan’s saga is so unsettling.

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His role in the A380 story is no more than a bit part. He was recruited from Kansas in September 2003 to take charge of the aerospace team at TTTech Computertechnik, an Austrian firm supplying Airbus components. He has accused the firm of “intentional non-compliance” with safety rules.

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Public court documents in Vienna record his allegation that TTTech conspired to “keep certain information secret from the certifying authorities”. Mr Mangan alleged “human lives could be in danger”, according to the document – an injunction by a Vienna judge. TTTech denies the allegations, calling him a disgruntled ex-employee who never fitted into the team, and is now bent on revenge.

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Mr Mangan claims a defect in the outflow valve control system could lead to an abrupt loss of cabin pressure, leaving passengers unconscious in as little as 20 seconds. “Normal oxygen masks don’t work properly above 33,000 feet.

It would take two and half minutes to bring the aircraft down to the survival altitude of 25,000 feet. Pilots would have little time to act. In the worst case scenario, the plane could crash.

“The A380 uses a set of four identical valves that could all go wrong at the same time for the same reason. The typical jet has three different systems to eliminate such a risk,” he claimed.

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Glitches had arisen using the same operating system in February 2004 during a test in Phoenix for the Aermacchi fighter trainer, which he had helped to fix, he claimed.

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There were 160 cases of emergency loss of cabin pressure in Europe last year. Investigators suspect it played a role in the crash of a Helios Boeing 737 flight over Greece in August, killing 121 people.

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Airbus dismissed fears about the A380 as baseless. “We have examined this internally and found absolutely no reason to be concerned. The scenario made up by Mr Mangan does not exist,” said spokesman David Voskuhl.

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But officials at the air safety watchdog EASA said they took the concerns”extremely seriously”. An EASA source said 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.

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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”.

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“We cannot leave questions open like this when it comes to aircraft safety,” she said. “I have received no reply up to now.

Unless I have a proper reply by next week, I will launch a formal complaint with the European Commission,” she told theTelegraph. Rüdiger Haas, a professor of aircraft manufacture at Karlsrühe University, said he “shared the reservations of Mangan” over the safety of the outflow valve controls.

“The system markedly deviates from previous specifications in aircraft construction,” he told Germany’s ARD television. Mr Mangan claimed that his employers were under intense pressure to meet deadlines. The A380 venture was already ¤1.5billion (£850m) over budget and six months behind schedule. He claimed it would have taken two years to carry out the proper certification.TTTech falsely classified its micro-chip as a simple “off-the-shelf” product already used in car valves in order to excempt it from elaborate testing rules, he claimed. This would breach both EU and US law on aircraft regulation.

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“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. Mr Mangan is concerned that his name may have been linked to certification, leaving him with legal liability. “That’s why I have to stick it out here inVienna until my name is cleared, ” he said.

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French prosecutors tracked alleged negligence in the 2000 Concorde crash to an American mechanic, who now faces a manslaughter probe. Mr Mangan said within days of reporting the alleged abuse he was sacked.

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TTTech filed both a civil and criminal defamation suit – possible under Austrian law – securing a gagging order on all details regarding the case. Mr Mangan refused to remain silent.

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“They say I can’t even talk to safety officials about a threat to safety. This violates my duty to the public. People could die on that plane if they don’t fix the problem,” he said.

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TTTech is a spin-off from the University of Vienna, specializing in”time-triggered technology”. The firm said it was forced to take action after Mr Mangan had inflicted “severe damage” to its reputation with wild allegations that he had so far been unable to substantiate. It admits to a routine software glitch, since corrected, but said an external audit found no trace of any abuses.

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“What he is saying is simply not true. We checked the evidence and found nothing wrong,” said the chief executive, Stefan Poledna. He said TTTech was never informed by EASA of any alleged non-compliance, and insisted that certification was an on-going “iterative process”.

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“This is all very strange. It was clear the certification bar had been raised after October 2004, and we had to do a lot of double-checking, but we’ve never been told that anything was fundamentally wrong,” he said.

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For now, the first A380 is carrying out daily test flights from its base in Toulouse, racking up 350 hours of flying time. The results are secret.

Next month the A380 will take off for its first test trip around the globe, stopping in Frankfurt, Singapore, and Sydney, before gearing up for passenger flights next year.

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Airbus is clearly confident that the A380 issafe. It will now have to convince prospective buyers.

Peter Troy

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