When an American Airlines plane smashed into a Colombian mountainside last December, outlaw salvagers didn't even wait for all 159 victims' bodies to be collected before they moved in.
Using sophisticated tools, they extracted engine thrust reversers, cockpit avionics and other valuable components from the shattered Boeing 757 and then used helicopters to fly the parts off the steep ridge, U.S. and Colombian sources say.
The parts were offered for sale in Miami, a hub of the thriving black market in recycled, stolen and counterfeit aircraft parts.
"They wanted to sell the whole lot, including the landing gear," a law enforcement source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Parts illegally salvaged from crashes, counterfeit parts and other substandard components regularly find their way into the world's air fleets, sold at bargain prices, often with falsified documents about their origin or composition.
For the flying public, they are a growing peril.
"The whole system is contaminated," said Peter Friedman, director of quality at an aircraft repair station in Oakland. "In my position, I find unapproved parts on a daily basis."
"Unapproved parts" is the Federal Aviation Administration's term for components not certified as airworthy--from fraudulently produced knockoffs made from inadequate alloys to recycled pieces misrepresented to hide defects, age or crash damage.
In the industry, they are known as "bogus parts." For people with no qualms about putting the flying public at risk, it's a lucrative market. The worldwide aircraft parts inventory is worth $45 billion.
Just how many non-airworthy parts have claimed lives is not known. Internationally, no one keeps records. In the United States, the number of cases is in dispute.
The worst confirmed accident occurred on Sept. 8, 1989, when at 22,000 feet over the North Sea, the tail section of a Convair 580 turboprop plane began vibrating violently and tore loose. The charter aircraft, carrying 55 people from Oslo, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany, splattered over 3 1/2 miles of sea. Everyone aboard died.
Norwegian investigators painstakingly dredged up 90% of the 36-year-old plane and found the cause: bogus bolts, bushings and brackets. The charter company, Partnair, went out of business, and the origin of the parts was never determined.
Most major international airlines have encountered unapproved parts--and the problem is more serious in the developing world, where regulation is lax when it exists at all.
"It's a real can of worms," said Michael F. Rioux, chief of engineering and maintenance at the Air Transport Assn. of America, whose 20 member airlines carry 97% of U.S. commercial traffic.
Brian Wall, security chief for the International Air Transport Assn., which represents more than 260 airlines, promotes seminars on bogus parts.
"We view this as a potentially dangerous situation. Who knows if we know the whole picture?" Wall said from IATA headquarters in Montreal.
Many industry executives refuse to discuss the issue on the record.
Even officials at United, American and Federal Express, among air carriers widely praised for tightening up their control of parts inventories, would not speak openly about their experiences with bogus parts.
Japan Airlines said the carrier's quality control chief would only answer questions on the subject in writing, and Air France executives refused to grant an interview to discuss what one spokeswoman called a "touchy subject." Swissair's quality control chief also declined to talk on the record.
That the industry is worried shows in American Airlines' unusual decision to make public a 14-page list, complete with serial numbers, of parts missing from the remains of Flight 965 after it crashed near Cali, Colombia, last Dec. 20.
The list put the industry on alert.
Sold to repair stations or airlines by brokers whose business is unregulated--more than 5,000 are active in the United States alone--black market parts come from theft rings, from counterfeiters, from "strip and dip" shops that mask flaws with a new coat of metal plating. Some even come from the production overruns of legitimate manufacturers--parts that may be airworthy but also can be production line rejects.
The money is so good that one Colombian parts trafficker told a Miami detective she switched to the trade from drug-running.
As the world's commercial air fleet ages, more overhauls are required and the potential increases for a bad part getting on a big plane.
But until congressional pressure and a series of groundbreaking investigative reports by the Cleveland Plain Dealer last year forced a policy shift, the FAA did not treat bogus parts as a serious threat, arguing they had not caused a single U.S. commercial aviation accident.
"Do unapproved parts pose a significant safety problem for the flying public?" then-FAA administrator David Hinson said at a May 1995 Senate hearing. "The answer is no, they do not."