A 27-year-old DC-9 that crashed in the Everglades with 109 people aboard was forced back to airports seven times in the last two years by problems that included lost cabin pressure, federal records show.
There was nothing "abnormal or shocking" about the downed plane's history, ValuJet Airlines Inc. President Lewis Jordan said Sunday."I have reviewed the list . . . and saw such things as overheating of a constant speed drive, a pressurization problem and a door ajar," Jordan said.
Jordan defended the economy airline's use of a fleet of aging DC-9s, many built more than 25 years ago, 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. I can't say it any more strongly than that," he said at a Miami news conference.
And despite a four-month review begun in February by the FAA, aviation consultants cautioned against drawing hasty conclusions from maintenance records.
It is "far too early to determine that the past incidents" had any relationship to Saturday's crash, said Mike Clark, an aviation consultant from Pembroke Pines, Fla., north of Miami.
The plane that plummeted into the Everglades on Saturday was trying to return for an emergency landing at Miami International Airport after pilots reported smoke in the cockpit. ValuJet Flight 592 crashed 15 miles short, killing 104 passengers and five crew members.
ValuJet bought the reconditioned plane from McDonnell Douglas, which had repurchased it from Delta Airlines. Its owners last gave it an annual inspection in October.
Federal Aviation Administration records showed the plane has returned to airports seven times in two years with a variety of problems, including 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.
In April 1995, the plane made an emergency landing in Memphis, Tenn., after it hit turbulence and began to descend mysteriously, causing cabin oxygen masks to pop out.
The FAA inspected the Atlanta-based airline for seven days in February and then began a 120-day followup inspection. The agency was prompted by several mishaps, including a fire on a taxiing airplane last June that injured seven people and three occasions earlier this year in which planes skidded or rolled off runways.
The FAA found nothing that warranted a penalty. But a recent FAA memo expressed concern about the experience level of new pilots, mechanics and flight dispatchers being hired by ValuJet.
Company officials did not return telephone calls Sunday to comment on an ABC report that the Department of Defense rejected ValuJet for military contracts in August 1995 because of the airline's safety record. ABC said records it had obtained found ValuJet's safety and maintenance programs were unsatisfactory and below average.
Jordan said Sunday the discount airline has done its best to balance safety concerns with financial ones.
"ValuJet looked at ways we could be innovative and creative and build a company that had the highest level of safety, but also be focused on passing along great fares every day," he said.
He also noted that the pilot of the crashed DC-9 had a total of 8,885 hours, including two-thirds as captain in charge, while a first officer who was a retired U.S. Air Force pilot had 6,146 hours of flying time.
ValuJet also voluntarily escalated its pilot training program after the FAA review and installed a policy of putting the senior pilot in charge whenever landing in inclement weather, he said.
The training program has attracted new, more experienced pilots, Jordan said, including veterans of the failed Eastern Airlines who wanted to remain in Atlanta.
Jordan noted the intensive FAA scrutiny for his 30-month-old airline has been healthy.
"We are probably better off now," Jordan said, "that we have been working with FAA hand in hand as our partners in safety."