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Black Market in Bogus Parts Poses Peril to Airline Passengers

Aviation: Recycled, stolen or counterfeit equipment, including salvage, increasingly turn up in the world's fleets.

December 15, 1996|FRANK BAJAK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The parts were cleaned, boxed up at Cali's airport and flown out of the country, U.S. and Colombian sources say. What eventually happened to them isn't known.

American Airlines was amazed to discover that the salvagers used specialized tools, including cutting torches, to extract pieces from the Rolls-Royce engines, company spokesman John Hotard said.

U.S. law officers in Miami trying to track down the Cali parts say such salvaging happens often.

For instance, Dennis Brett of Dallas pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 1994 for trying to sell engine turbine disks without mentioning they came from a Varig Airlines Boeing 737 that crash-landed in a Brazilian jungle in 1989. He served five months in prison.

Parts from a British Airways Boeing 747, which was burned in Kuwait by retreating Iraqi troops at the end of the Gulf War, made their way into the inventory of a Chicago company. A Kuwaiti salvage company had dismantled the plane and promised British Airways it would destroy the parts.

Decommissioned aircraft are routinely stripped throughout the world, their parts easy to come by. Often, the paperwork is questionable.

But even the paperwork of new parts can be suspect.

Under Schiavo, a DOT audit of FAA-certified repair stations outside the United States found 43% of the parts they obtained from manufacturers lacked documentation proving them airworthy. The same was the case for 95% of those they got from brokers.

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On the Lookout for Bogus Parts

Aircraft parts with sophisticated circuitry generally are most lucrative items for thieves. Counterfeiters usually copy components that are simpler but, when properly made, require expensive alloys. Some examples of fair market and black market prices:

* Flight management computer: Located in cockpit and popular with thieves. Too sophisticated to counterfeit. Costs $150,000-$200,000 new or otherwise certified airworthy. Black market price about $50,000.

* Cone bolt: Two hold engine to wing; failure of one can cause engine to tear loose. Cost about $230-$250 per bolt. Machine shop can turn out substandard version for $30-$40 that does not meet tensile strength, hardness or stress durability requirements.

* 4 1/2-inch spacer bearing: Shields crucial components from searing engine gases in Pratt & Whitney JT8D engine. Costs $500 new. Machine shop can make inferior knockoff for $40.

* Turbine blade: Dozens in jet engine create thrust through air intake and fuel combustion. Cost $1,500 each new. U.S. congressional investigator bought blades at Miami scrap yard for $1.30 apiece.

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FBI identifies four basic fraud schemes involving bogus aircraft parts:

* Affixing FAA yellow airworthiness tag, which certifies part as having been rebuilt or overhauled, to used part on which no work has been done.

* Making part based on manufacturer specifications but with inferior materials, so it resembles genuine item without meeting flight specifications or having been tested.

* Buying, and then reselling, production overruns from parts makers who supply major aircraft manufacturers. Such parts may be airworthy, but they can be factory rejects.

* Obtaining parts that are fatigued, worn or damaged to point of being unfixable and selling them as refurbished.

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