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VALUJET DEFENDS CRAFT THAT CRASHED

Despite problems that forced a doomed ValuJet DC-9 back to airports seven times in two years, there was nothing "abnormal or shocking" about its history, the airline said.

The 27-year-old jet slammed into the Everglades shortly after takeoff Saturday afternoon, killing all 109 people aboard.ValuJet President Lewis Jordan defended the discount airline's use of a fleet of aging DC-9s and his company's arrangement to contract for training of young pilots hired at lower salaries.

"A properly maintained airplane that is 25, 26 or 27 years old is as safe as a brand new airplane coming off the line," he said.

Nonetheless, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was intensifying a review of ValuJet's safety and maintenance starting Monday.

The agency's Associate Administrator Anthony J. Broderick said a weeklong checkup on the airline scheduled for next week has been moved up and will be extended to a full month.

FAA inspectors will ride in the cockpit of ValuJet planes to review crew training procedures, use of checklists, dispatching and other areas.

"We welcome the FAA's scrutiny," ValuJet spokesman Robert Copeland said late Sunday. "We will continue to work with the FAA to assure the highest level of safety."

The FAA inspected the Atlanta-based airline for seven days in February. That review came after a fire on a taxiing airplane last June that injured seven people, and two accidents in which planes skidded off runways.

The FAA found nothing that warranted a penalty. But a recent FAA memo expressed concern about the experience level of ValuJet's new pilots, mechanics and flight dispatchers.

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported Sunday that ValuJet's fleet of aircraft had returned to airports at least 68 times with safety problems from the time the airline opened in October 1993 through early April.

ValuJet bought the doomed jet from McDonnell Douglas, which had repurchased it from Delta Airlines. Its owners last gave it an annual inspection in October, an intermediate inspection in March and a routine inspection four days before it crashed.

FAA records showed the plane had returned to airports seven times in two years with problems that included a loose oil cap that caused the plane to lose 10 quarts of oil; a faulty heat exchanger; an overheated constant speed drive, which provides electrical energy; a faulty hydraulic pump; a rear stair door ajar; and on two occasions when the plane lost pressure.

It also made an emergency landing in Memphis, Tenn., in April 1995, and problems caused two aborted takeoffs.

Jordan said there was nothing "abnormal or shocking" about the plane's history, and that the airline has done its best to balance safety concerns with financial ones.