Fifth V-22 with loose bolts points to design problem

By Stephen Trimble

US Naval Air Systems Command confirms today that a fifth MV-22 — and the first US-based aircraft – is afflicted with the same “loose bolts” problem that caused the fleet to be grounded earlier this week

This discovery means all “high-time” V-22 airframes may have a safety-critical design problem, and is not isolated to the four Iraq-based MV-22s previously found with the problem.

The bolts are used to attach a swashplate that controls the pitch of the propeller blade. If the swashplate comes loose during flight, the aircraft could crash.

“You would essentially lose control of the aircraft,” Col Matt Mulhern, V-22 programme manager, told FlightGlobal.com.

While a root-cause investigation is ongoing, NAVAIR officials believe a design change will likely be required to ensure bolts in the proprotor cannot come loose, which if left unchecked would cause the aircraft to spin out of control.

Mulhern notes that investigators have not ruled out potential defects in maintenance or manufacturing either. But the new fact that both aircraft in Iraq and the US are affected suggests that poor maintenance is not a driving factor.

“We’re going to eventually need a material fix for this” problem, Mulhern said.

The problem was discovered on Saturday after an MV-22 landed at Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq. The crew heard strange noises, and the inspection found the bolts rattling loose inside one of the MV-22’s two engine nacelles. The bolts appear to have shaken loose after the aircraft landed, which could offer a clue to investigators.

“That has raised questions about what happens [to the bolts] when you take the load off of [the prop-rotor],” Mulhern said.

Two days after the first discovery, the USMC grounded all 73 MV-22s and 11 CV-22s for inspections as a safety precaution. Immediately, the inspections identified three more MV-22s at Al-Asad with loose bolts on the same component, although the bolts had not fallen completely from their holes.

Programme officials had hoped the problem was contained to the MV-22s deployed to Iraq, which could have suggested that the more intense operations were a contributing factor.

Instead, the discovery of the MV-22 based at New River, North Carolina, on Wednesday, changed the focus of the investigation. All five MV-22s shared a common trait as among the most “high-time” airframes in the fleet.

The “loose bolts” problem comes at a sensitive time for the programme. The Pentagon is preparing the final version of the Fiscal 2010 budget request. The US Special Operations Command is interested in accelerating purchases of CV-22s over the next five years.

“This is an event that aircraft go through, and it was a precautionary grounding,” Mulhern said. “But you’re always worried about how the politics play out.”


Switzerland to slip fighter selection by six months


By Craig Hoyle

Swiss defence minister Ueli Maurer has announced a six-month delay to the nation’s selection process for a Northrop F-5 fighter replacement, pushing a decision back to at least January 2010.

The Swiss air force late last year completed extensive evaluations of three candidate airframes: the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen. It is notionally seeking up to 33 new aircraft to replace its F-5s (single-seat examples below) under a requirement pegged at $1.9 billion.

© Swiss air force

Maurer, who assumed his post in January, has requested extra time for the completion of a review of Swiss security policy that had originally been scheduled for completion in mid-2009. “A report will be on the table in December,” a defence ministry source says, adding: “It would be stupid to make a fighter selection any sooner.”

Local reports that claim the decision has been delayed because of a diplomatic spat with Germany are “media fantasy”, the source says. EADS Deutschland is leading the Typhoon sales campaign in Switzerland, hoping to build on its export success with neighbouring Austria.

The three bidding companies will be asked to submit best and final offers for the fighter deal “in the summer”, the source says, but the requirement will not be reopened to other candidates.


Royal Air Maroc to take six ATR 72-600s for new regional airline

Royal Air Maroc is planning to announce an order for six ATR 72-600s later today which will be used to launch its new domestic operation, tentatively dubbed Atlas Inter.

Last October Royal Air Maroc president Driss Benhina told ATI that he was planning to create a new domestic subsidiary, called Atlas Inter, in 2009. At the time he said that the new carrier would be a “low-cost regional operator”.

Adding fresh details, a Royal Air Maroc spokeswoman says the domestic airline subsidiary, which is likely to be Casablanca-based, will begin turboprop operations in July.

She adds: “The new subsidiary will be dedicated to performing domestic operations in Morocco. It will not fly international routes.”

The spokeswoman says the fleet will initially comprise six aircraft, but will later grow to eight, adding that the type is due to be disclosed today.

An ATI source says Royal Air Maroc is planning to sign a firm order for six ATR 72-600s, plus two options, later today.

The -600 is a new ATR variant, with upgraded avionics, which will roll off the production line in 2011.

ATR revealed in January that it had backlogged orders for 39 -600s from operators including Kingfisher Airlines, Air Tahiti and Air Caraibes.


Lufthansa Cargo chief says freight crisis exceeds worst forecasts


By Victoria Moores

Lufthansa Cargo chairman and CEO Carsten Spohr admits that the sudden cargo downturn has exceeded even the company’s most extreme crisis planning scenarios, and he outlines a cautious approach to 2009.

Last year Lufthansa Cargo delivered the second-best results in its history, with revenues rising 6.3% to €2.9 billion ($3.9 billion) and operating profits up 20.9% at €164 million. But load factor for the year dipped three points to 66%, after the first half’s double-digit growth gave way to a downturn from July onwards.

Speaking during Lufthansa Cargo’s annual results briefing in Frankfurt, Spohr labelled the 2008 performance as “very good”, but he added the decline had reached an extent not witnessed since the Second World War. IATA figures show that freight volumes in February were down by over 20% for the third month in a row.

Spohr spoke to Flightglobal about the cargo industry downturn, outlining his personal view that the industry might have seen the lowest point but adding: “The more difficult question is how long we will be at this level.”

Over recent years Lufthansa Cargo’s crisis-planning scenarios have only ever extended to a 15% decline, says Spohr, based on cargo volumes falling 10% after the events of 11 September 2001.

“We said it will never get that bad again but, if it does, let’s allow for another 5% [decline]. Nobody would seriously think about a 25% decline,” says Spohr.

“IATA numbers over recent months are showing double the downturn that we saw after 11 September 2001, so that gives you a feel about where we are.”

During 2009 Spohr expects revenues to “fall perceptibly” and for operating profits to drop well below 2008 levels, as Lufthansa Cargo faces its biggest challenge for many years. He believes the turbulent market conditions will “separate the men from the boys”.

Lufthansa Cargo has already put four of its Boeing MD-11 freighters out of service, cut management salaries and placed 2,600 German ground workers on reduced hours in a bid to counter the downturn.


Six-month delay for first Ares I five-segment rocket test

NASA’s first firing test of the five-segment solid rocket motor, DM-1, for the Ares I crew launch vehicle, has been delayed by up to six months from 2 April to August or September.

Ares I uses a solid rocket motor for its first stage and its prime contractor Alliant Techsystems, which provides the Space Shuttle Programme’s four-segment motor, won the development contract in 2007. ATK says a six-month delay is possible because it needs to be “sure the first test is right and there is no critical path impact” – meaning the CLV’s development will not be set back by the delay.

After DM-1 ATK had planned to test its demonstration motors DM-2 and -3 in August and September, respectively. Those tests are now likely to be delayed toward the end of the year, if not to 2010.

The Ares I’s first stage differs from the Shuttle solid rocket boosters as it has a modified solid fuel, new insulation materials for the segments and igniter – itself a solid rocket – and it will have a longer nozzle for lunar missions.

Due to exhaust vortices generating an oscillation through the entire vehicle, the Ares’ first stage will have mass dampers at the its base and other mitigation systems at its top. The first stage’s base will also have additional small motors to initiate a tumbling motion for its descent profile.

On 19 March the company delivered the four first-stage motor segments for the Ares I-X for its test flight, scheduled for 11 July. The segments are from the Space Shuttle Programme. Ares I-X is a test vehicle representative of the final Ares CLV rocket.

This month ATK placed a $257 million contract with the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture United Space Alliance for Ares I-X and CLV support work. The alliance carries out ground operations for the Space Shuttle Programme.


Southwest eyes up entry into long-haul market


By Kerry Ezard

Southwest Airlines is looking into the idea of entering codeshare deals with long-haul carriers, and does not rule out the possibility that it could one day operate long-haul routes with its own aircraft.

Speaking exclusively to Airline Business today, Southwest senior director of planning and distribution, Richard Sweet, said the carrier is “starting to hold talks with potential [long-haul] partners” with a view to entering into similar codeshare agreements to those it recently signed with Canada’s WestJet and Mexico’s Volaris.

Under the WestJet and Volaris deals, all transborder flying will initially be carried out by the Canadian and Mexican carriers, allowing Southwest to “get a toe in” the international marketplace “in a low risk way”, says Sweet, adding that “this doesn’t preclude us from doing the flying ourselves in the future”.

This is a pattern that could eventually be repeated on flights outside of the Americas. However, Sweet says that from a technological and operational standpoint, “getting out of this hemisphere” will be a lot more challenging. “This would be phase two of the work we’d have to do to codeshare on longer flights east and west,” he says, adding that any deal with a long-haul carrier is “probably at least a year-and-a-half to two years down the road”.

Southwest Airlines
© Southwest Airlines

“Flying with a codeshare partner long-haul is certainly something we’re interested in doing in the long-term,” says Sweet. Asked whether an eventual codeshare deal with a long-haul airline could be a precursor to Southwest one day branching into the long-haul market with its own aircraft, Sweet responds that this would represent “another big move out of our present model and it would involve a different aircraft type, but I’m not saying we wouldn’t do it”.

“Some day we could [see a long-haul Southwest Airlines] but it’s not on our timeline now. Right now we’re working on Canada and Mexico.”

In terms of long-haul codeshare partners, Sweet says that “at this point we’re willing to talk to anybody to find out if there is an opportunity to make a match”. He adds: “As a feeder to a long-haul carrier we provide a strong business and leisure mix. We could match up with any carrier, although the closer to [our business model] the better.”