Years after fatal crash, planes still aren’t up to ATSB standards

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On the afternoon of May 26, 2019, a pilot and an observer were conducting a survey flight in north-west Queensland when the right wing of their Cessna 210 was ripped off, sending the aircraft crashing to the ground.

Both men lost their lives in the crash which investigations later revealed was caused by a fracture in the wing spar carry-through structure, which sits in the roof cavity of the plane and joins the two wings.

An investigation was launched by the Australian Transport and Safety Bureau (ATSB) which found sub-par maintenance processes overseen by US owners Textron Aviation were to blame.

Two years later, the ATSB says Textron is not doing enough to prevent further issues in the long-term.

“Maintenance inspections are often the sole opportunity to detect damage within an aircraft structure,” the safety body said in a report released this week recommending further measures.

a small aircrafta small aircraft
The Cessna 210 aircraft.(Supplied: ATSB)

“We are concerned by the indefinite nature of the manufacturer’s proposed analysis and certification program,” the report stated.

“There needs to be a more systemic, long-term solution implemented so we don’t see another incident like this again,” said ATSB chief commissioner Angus Mitchell.

What went wrong?

Up until 2011, maintenance was conducted based on the number of hours the aircraft had flown. That was changed to three, yearly visual inspections which “significantly limited the opportunity to identify fatigue cracking within the wing spar carry-through structure,” the ATSB stated.

Graphic of a wing spar carry-through structureGraphic of a wing spar carry-through structure
The wing spar carry-through structure sits in the roof cavity and joins the two wings.(Supplied: ATSB)

Another issue was that the plane was built for transportation purposes, not for use as a low-level surveying aircraft.

The increased amount of stresses applied to the plane operating at low-level (flying upwards and downwards more frequently) would have exacerbated the risk of the fracture in the structure.

“Even when flying within operational limits, if an aircraft is operated in a flight profile for which it was not originally intended, its structure can fatigue more rapidly,” the ATSB said.

wing spar carry-through structure with fracturewing spar carry-through structure with fracture
The wing spar carry-through structure was fractured, causing the right wing of the plane to detach.(Supplied: ATSB)

Other issues included a lack of corrosion-inhibiting paint on the carry-through structure and a design that allowed excess moisture absorption.

Hundreds of planes corroding

Following the ATSB’s investigation 499 Cessna-210 operators reported corrosion, while 68 carry‑through structures were removed from service.

“Those actions alone may have saved lives and they give a wake-up call to owners and operators of aircrafts around enforcing regular inspection cycles,” Mr Mitchell said.

a plane wing on dirt grounda plane wing on dirt ground
The wing that was ripped from the body of the plane.(Supplied: ATSB)

While Textron implemented measures in response to the ATSB’s 2019 investigation, the manufacturer said it would consider further processes.

“Textron Aviation has been working closely with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) throughout their investigation of the event. The company has received, and is considering, ATSB’s safety recommendation.

“Additional information will be provided to ATSB upon completion of that review,” the company said in a statement.