A VIRGIN Australia plane grounded in Albury after a suspected bird strike had flown 13 times with serious structural damage, an investigation has revealed.
An interim report released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau details a series of faults related to the tail of the plane.
“The aircraft manufacturer inspected the aircraft and found broken carbon plies, cracked joint sealant and deformation in and around the area where the horizontal stabiliser attaches to the vertical stabiliser,” the report stated.
“There was also some minor damage to the rudder.
“The damage was assessed as being consistent with an overstress condition.”
The plane had been descending from Sydney into Albury on February 25 when it was feared it had hit birds, but the bureau report was unable to conclude such a strike occurred.
It was suggested by Virgin the damage may have been tied to turbulence the plane suffered 13 flights earlier on a February 20 Canberra-Sydney service in which a cabin crew member suffered a suspected broken leg.
The bureau found the pilots on that flight were operating out-of-sync.
“The differential force on the control column that resulted from the captain and first officer applying an opposing force exceeded the differential force required to generate a pitch disconnect,” the bureau’s report stated.
“Each pilot was then controlling the elevator on their side of the aircraft in opposite directions for a brief period before the first officer released his control column.”
The bureau is continuing to examine the circumstances of each flight, with a final report not expected until February.
Its probe will look at weather conditions, recorded plane data, maintenance records and Virgin’s procedures and training.
Virgin is awaiting approval for repairs to the plane and the aircraft is not expected to be fixed and ready to leave Albury until late next month or early August.
The airline said it had “strong protocols in place to ensure the safety of our operations”.
“While this is an isolated issue, we are working with the bureau, the aircraft manufacturer and our maintenance provider to identify what has occurred,” it said.
“As the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for us to comment in any further detail at this stage.”