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A Skeptic Under Pressure

A U.S. engineer faces bankruptcy and arrest in Austria as he questions the safety of a component in the huge Airbus A380 jetliner.

September 27, 2005|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — Ever since the Mangans gave up their comfortable house in Kansas City, Kan., and moved here a year ago, the family has been living in a kind of suspended animation.

It almost looks as if they just moved into their two-bedroom apartment near Austria's old Imperial Palace: Some boxes shipped from the U.S. have never been opened and the bedroom windows are still covered with sheets because the family ran short of money before they could buy curtains.

The three young Mangan children have stopped asking about their plight, although 9-year-old Timothy gets angry every once in a while. "I wish I can yell at them," he blurted out recently about his father's former employer.

Joseph Mangan, 41, is a whistle-blower. As a result he and his family find themselves in a foreign country with unfamiliar laws, fighting a legal battle that has left them almost penniless.

A year ago, Mangan told European aviation authorities that he believed there were problems with a computer chip on the Airbus A380, the biggest and costliest commercial airliner ever built. The A380 is a double-decked engineering marvel that will carry as many as 800 passengers -- double the capacity of Boeing Co.'s 747. It is expected to enter airline service next year.

Mangan alleges that flaws in a microprocessor could cause the valves that maintain cabin pressure on the A380 to accidentally open during flight, allowing air to leak out so rapidly that everyone aboard could lose consciousness within seconds.

It's a lethal scenario similar to the 1999 crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five others when their Learjet lost cabin pressure and they blacked out. The plane flew on autopilot for hours before crashing in South Dakota.

Mangan was chief engineer for TTTech Computertechnik, a Viennese company that supplies the computer chips and software to control the cabin-pressurization system for the A380, which is being assembled at the Airbus plant in France.

In October, TTTech fired Mangan and filed civil and criminal charges against him for revealing company documents. The company said the information was proprietary and he had no right to disclose it to anyone.

Mangan countersued, saying he had been wrongly terminated for raising legitimate safety concerns.

Unlike U.S. laws that shield whistle-blowers from corporate retaliation, Austrian laws offer no such protection. Last year an Austrian judge imposed an unusual gag order on Mangan, seeking to stop him from talking about the case.

Mangan posted details about the case anyway in his own Internet blog. The Austrian court fined him $185,000 for violating the injunction.

And the Vienna police, who are conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, searched the family's apartment for four hours, downloading files from Mangan's computer as his children watched.

Boxes of documents detailing his allegations clutter the living room, but Mangan can't show the material or talk about the case -- at least in Austria.

To discuss his case with The Times, Mangan took a five-hour train ride to Munich, Germany, where the gag order doesn't apply. "I don't want to destroy TTTech," he said. "But I still get nightmares of people dying. I just can't let that happen."

To help pay living expenses and legal fees, Mangan sold his house in Kansas. With only about $300 left in his bank account, Mangan missed a Sept. 8 deadline to pay his $185,000 fine and faces up to a year in jail. Next month he's likely to be called before a judge on his criminal case.

The family expected to be evicted this month from their apartment, but their church in Vienna took up a collection to pay their rent.

At the moment, Mangan is hiding out at a church member's home because he fears he could be arrested at any time.

Mangan's wife, Diana, has been reading a book, "Lord, Where Are You When Bad Things Happen?" to make sense of the family's ordeal. "He's trying to do the right thing. Why are we suffering for it?" she said.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Mangan's case has raised eyebrows in the close-knit aerospace community, which is fascinated by his allegations but unclear about how serious they are.

Hans Weber, a veteran aviation consultant in San Diego, can't say whether Mangan has a legitimate claim because he hasn't seen the evidence. But he is baffled by the extent to which Airbus and TTTech have "gone after" Mangan.

"There is something really unusual about this case in the sense that there is this hard standoff between Airbus and the individual," Weber said. "It doesn't make any sense to me."

One of Mangan's key allegations is that because of the A380's unusual design, any loss of cabin pressure would be extremely dangerous.

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