Floppy choppers

The rise and fall of Boeing's military helicopters.

NO SOONER WAS Boeing's military helicopter division en route to settling one of the company's potentially most expensive US whistle-blower lawsuits, than it was rocked by a similar new legal charge.

Court records in Ohio indicate Boeing will settle out of court with Brent Roby, a former quality control inspector for a Boeing subcontractor, the now-defunct Speco Corp. According to Boeing, a planned September trial has been canceled because of "tentative agreement with respect to settlement, which is subject to documentation and approvals."

In May 1995 Roby filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act as a federal whistle-blower. He claimed Boeing knowingly used defective Chinook helicopter gears made by Speco. In 1997 the US joined the suit, as it can do in whistle-blower cases, issuing an amended complaint seeking $90 million from Boeing (whistle-blowers can receive one-fourth of the damages if the US joins their suits, or all the damages if they go it alone).

The Chinook, the Army's chief troop-transport chopper, has seen war duty since Vietnam. Roby's case involves incidents in 1991 and 1993, when several soldiers were injured after one Chinook crashed in Saudi Arabia and another went down at Fort Meade, Maryland. The Chinooks had cracked transmission gears that disrupted the spinning of the choppers' tandem rotors. Roby also claimed other Chinook crashes were caused by faulty parts (Gulf War and training exercise crashes left 15 soldiers and two Boeing engineers dead).

Boeing denies it hushed up gear imperfections, insisting the Chinook has a good safety record. Neither side has yet announced settlement terms.

Design flaws are also the basis for a new claim filed by another whistle-blower— a now-retired Boeing engineer who was asked to troubleshoot problems with Boeing's Apache military chopper, a gunship that was temporarily grounded last year after two fatal combat crashes in Serbia.

In a $20 million False Claims Act lawsuit in Arizona, former engineer Eugene Swensen has been joined by the Justice Department in alleging that Apaches delivered to the Army since 1984 have faulty devices known as fuzz busters. The devices prevent parts failures by burning off metal debris in the transmission and landing-gear boxes. A warning light is triggered if a major chunk of metal is detected, requiring immediate landing.

According to Swensen, the warning-light system repeatedly gives false readings. No crashes have resulted, but pilots have made more than 2,000 unnecessary landings in the last eight years, he claims, at an estimated cost of $9,000 for each aborted mission. Swensen asserts he alerted Boeing to the problem three years ago, but says his concerns were dismissed and his work assignments cut in retaliation.

In a statement, Boeing spokesman Hal Klopper says, "The fuzz buster was fully tested and accepted by the Army during the development program, and all production contracts have expressly required the use of the same design."

Former Army pilot Jon Kettles, now an attorney, is also suing Boeing over the Apache's design, calling it an "aircraft that flies itself into the ground" due to an allegedly flawed backup control system. The Army is investigating that system as the possible cause of five dozen Apache flight incidents or crashes over the years.

 
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