Some Boeing-made 737, 747 and 757 jet airliners manufactured since July 1, 1986, were fitted with more than 2,000 allegedly counterfeit ball bearings that an engineer said could "pose serious hazards," according to federal court documents that were unsealed at The Times' request.
The Seattle-based aerospace giant said in a prepared statement that it has begun an investigation but "so far, none of the applications discovered have been flight-critical or safety related." The company declined to say how many jets contain the allegedly bogus bearings, or to which airlines the planes were sold.
According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by an airplane parts manufacturing company, the ball bearings, which are washer-shaped and about the diameter of a golf ball, typically are used in several critical flight control areas. They include an airplane's gear box, the pilot control systems, which are used by the pilot in changing altitude, and the plane's trim tabs, which help keep the craft level in flight.
"Could a plane crash because of this?" Jerry Presba, retired technical support chief of the Federal Aviation Administration and regional service difficulty coordinator for the FAA's Western region, asked rhetorically. "You bet. It's quite conceivable loss of control would result from bearing failure, which would mean the ultimate destruction of the airplane."
Same Parts Number
A check of FAA database records in Oklahoma City showed that a Boeing 737 had to return to Houston's William P. Hobby Airport in early 1988 immediately after taking off because of "erratic movement of stabilizer trim wheel."
The plane landed safely, but the bearing that failed and caused the erratic movement had the same part number as those allegedly counterfeited, the FAA's records show. The same part numbers are also engraved on legitimate bearings that are used in aircraft.
The FAA said it was unaware of the alleged counterfeit ball bearings in Boeing aircraft.
The existence of the supposedly counterfeit parts was first mentioned publicly in a July 28 lawsuit filed by Torrington Co., a Torrington, Conn.-based ball bearings manufacturer, against Alliance Bearing Industries of Van Nuys.
Torrington Co., which is owned by Ingersoll-Rand, sued Alliance, charging it with trademark counterfeiting, trademark infringement, unfair competition and racketeering. Also named as defendants were Alliance's President Morton Heller, sales manager Robert Baker, and officers Dorothy Heller and Glenn Heller.
Alliance's attorneys have denied those allegations.
"The company is denying it counterfeited any parts. There was one instance of an employee completely without authorization falsely labeling some bearings," said John Hurt, an attorney for Alliance. He said the company "immediately disciplined the person. . . . This is an innocent company. There was one employee out of line and one incident. That is all."
On Aug. 2, federal marshals raided Alliance Bearing's office and seized some of the alleged counterfeit bearings, bookkeeping and other business records.
Torrington alleges that Alliance sold to Boeing more than 10,000 "inferior, counterfeit" ball bearings that were labeled with the Torrington-owned brand name of Fafnir. According to court papers, Boeing ordered the bearings, which the company believed were genuine Fafnir bearings, between Jan. 14., 1986, and Feb. 28, 1987.
Of the more than 10,000 bearings, well above 2,000 were put into commercial jets and the AWACS radar surveillance plane, a military aircraft, according to a court declaration by Matthew Daly, senior buyer in the standards and procurement section of Boeing's material division.
The remainder were awaiting installation when Torrington said it received an anonymous tip that at least a portion of Boeing's inventory of Fafnir ball bearings consisted of counterfeits.
Sometime around January, Torrington engineer Alan Gabrielson was provided with samples from Boeing's inventory of the allegedly counterfeit bearings, according to court records.
During Gabrielson's inspection, he found several imperfections in the bearings that could cause the bearings to rotate unevenly, crack or even break. "The malfunction of such bearings in an aircraft control system would pose serious hazards," Gabrielson said in court papers.
In March, Boeing removed the bearings from its inventory, according to court records.
Alliance, which has been in business for about 15 years and employs 50 workers, denied engaging "in repeated acts of trademark counterfeiting or infringement," according to a memorandum in the Torrington suit.