Open-and-shut case

This first appeared as a Comment in the 4 June issue of Flight International

You can’t help feeling that, if there were such thing as a Better Mousetrap department in Toulouse, the in-tray would still have a file marked Fan Cowl Latching stubbornly lying in it, covered with red scribbles to the effect of “almost there, try again”.

It’s possible that the early morning British Airways A319 incident at Heathrow in May had nothing to do with the cowl latches.

But the circumstantial evidence – the loss during take-off, the appearance of the damage, the fact that it happened to both engines – is consistent, at least, with a niggle that has proven simple to understand yet frustratingly difficult to defeat.

Loss of unlatched cowls was a concern more than a decade ago, and an A320 incident at Gatwick led UK investigators to press the case for a flightdeck warning system. Simply improving the conspicuousness of latches and tightening training, they said, would probably not be enough to resolve the issue.

The counter-argument is that a warning system brings additional cost, weight and workload, not to mention that the complexity of a technological solution appears disproportionate to the maddening simplicity of the problem.

To suggest cowl loss is an Airbus-specific matter would, of course, be grossly unfair. US investigators have previously highlighted a similar issue involving the rear-mounted engines of Bombardier CRJs.

But regardless of the airframe, the central point is the need to prevent human attributes such as basic absent-mindedness leading to consequences that, at best, are expensive and, at worst, represent a hazard to flight – not just for the aircraft involved but also for any others that might be affected by debris on the runway.

So far the prevention measures have come up short. Latches have been painted bright orange, and cowls have been modified so they appear less deceptive when open.

New cowl designs have even reduced the need for the doors to be opened for certain maintenance procedures, but aviation remains just as vulnerable to the unwritten rule of life stating that, if something can be done wrongly, inevitably it will be.

It’s tempting to believe that there is a simple solution that has so far escaped the minds of those in Better Mousetrap departments the world over. If you’re one of those closet geniuses with a penchant for lateral thinking, now’s your chance.

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