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Safety Threat Seen : Counterfeits Now Nuts, Bolts Issue

January 27, 1989|GREGORY CROUCH | Times Staff Writer

Several people have died in crashes involving private planes that officials determined were caused by defective fasteners--the nuts, bolts and screws that hold together an aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board's computer database indicates there were 61 aviation accidents between 1984 and 1987 caused by bad fasteners. How many of those fasteners were counterfeited is just now being investigated.

And just last summer, three different military planes at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma experienced engine failure as a result of defective bolts that may have been counterfeit, according to an internal Air Force safety alert. No one was hurt.

Still, no catastrophic accident of any kind has ever been blamed on a counterfeit part. Some officials speculate that most counterfeit parts are so small that investigators might have missed their role in causing a larger component to break down with disastrous results.

"No one has known what to look for until now," said Tommy Grant, a Houston parts supplier and the individual credited with bringing the counterfeit problem to the federal government's attention. "People call me nearly every day now with some new case."

Handful of Fatalities

So far, however, only a handful of fatalities have been directly linked to the breakdown of counterfeit parts.

Construction worker Calvin Davis was among them. Three days before Christmas in 1987, Davis was kneeling on an iron beam getting ready to tighten bolts used to hold together the frame of a General Motors auto assembly plant then under construction in Springhill, Tenn. He was working 65 feet in the air.

Using his body weight as leverage, Davis, 51, checked the first bolt. It broke, causing him to lose his balance. He fell to the ground and died instantly.

Laboratory tests proved the bolt was faulty. The supplier was Metal Building Bolts, a Houston parts distributor that is one of more than 30 companies currently under criminal investigation for allegedly selling counterfeit and substandard parts, according to congressional records. Metal Building Bolts has consistently denied any improprieties.

The federal government has only recently begun to take counterfeiters to court.

Arthur O. Sammons of Canoga Park was one of the first targets. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had bought thousands of nuts and bolts from his company, A. O. Sammons, in order to build its space laboratory, called Astro I. The lab was scheduled for launch aboard a space shuttle in March, 1990.

But now Astro I is being taken apart because NASA learned Sammons had falsified documents saying the bolts passed certain safety tests. Tests indicated the bolts were defective and NASA says they could have posed a safety threat to astronauts. The lab, says NASA, could have literally started falling apart in the shuttle's cargo bay, setting loose large parts that could have damaged the shuttle. Astro I's disassembly took six months and cost NASA about $1 million.

Sammons, 77, pleaded guilty in November to 43 counts of fraud and making false statements to NASA and was ordered to get out of the aerospace fastener business in six months.

A. O. Sammons is a one-man company that operates out of a condominium garage, according to federal investigators. Sammons has refused repeated interview requests.

NASA has said allegedly counterfeit bolts sold by Lawrence Engineering & Supply in Burbank were removed from the space shuttle Discovery just months before its successful mission last September. The Defense Department has alleged in an affidavit that the company was trying to pass off cheap Japanese bolts as more expensive U.S. parts. Lawrence's clerks told investigators from the Defense Department that they routinely filled in test results on certifications accompanying the bolts even though safety tests had not been performed, according to the Defense Department affidavit. One employee told officials he overheard a supervisor telling employees to "just fill in the blanks." Lawrence has denied any wrongdoing.

"There were thousands of bolts we had to check," said Wiley Bunn, director of quality assurance at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "You can't believe what a mess this has been. The ultimate nightmare."

How does a company like A. O. Sammons get such an important contract with NASA, a federal agency?

The answer is the federal government and state governments often require that subcontracts be awarded to the lowest bidder. Because their product is either a used part or a cheap knockoff, counterfeiters usually can outbid legitimate parts suppliers. Sometimes, as in the case of Sammons, the government does not perform background checks on its suppliers.

Hardly a Bargain

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