Oh My God There’s Duct Tape On My Plane!

Or so it appears. The truth isn’t quite so scary.

Duct Tape 737

January 11, 2015

THIS AGAIN: a passenger snaps a picture of what seems to be duct tape affixed to some portion of an airplane, uploads it to Facebook or wherever, and suddenly it’s a scandal.

The picture above, showing tape over the flap fairing of a 737, was sent to me by a panicked reader a few years ago. This week it’s a picture from the Philippines, where a Cebu Pacific Airbus A320 was photographed with a taped-over panel near its port side wing root.

Duct Tape A320

What you’re actually seeing is a heavy-duty aluminum bonding tape known as “speed tape.” It’s a temporary fix and it’s used only on superficial or noncritical components, until more substantive repairs are made later on. The tape is extremely durable and is able to expand and contract through a wide range of temperatures.

“We never use, and don’t even stock, duct tape,” explains a veteran airline mechanic. “Some of the tapes we use cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per roll. Speed tape is one of those. Last I heard, it costs about $700 per four-inch wide roll. It’s approved by the manufacturer, FAA and company engineering department for certain repairs — always temporary.”

In the top photo, those canoe-shaped fairings are noncritical. They’re a streamlining device, mainly, that protect the flap extension mechanisms and help smooth the airflow around them. On the Cebu Pacific plane the tape is securing an access panel. Both the fairing and the access panel could be entirely missing with no ill effects on the plane’s ability to fly beyond, perhaps, a minor fuel-burn penalty.

My only gripe is the haphazard way in which the tape is sometimes applied. In both of these pictures it looks as if the mechanic brought his eight year-old son to work and let him give it a try. That’s just begging for controversy, and airline staff should know better. Cockpit crews could help too in these situations through a simple PA announcement.

 

 

Damage control becomes difficult once the media or the Internet gets hold of these things. In London in 2011, passengers watched with reported “horror” as a problem with a Ryanair jet’s windscreen was repaired using what they took to be duct or gaffer’s tape. The plane took off for Riga, Latvia, only to return to Stansted Airport twenty minutes later when, according to the UK tabloid Sun, the tape came loose and began making “disturbing noises.” Granted, anything from the Sun is to be taken with a grain of salt, but this story was picked up by Gizmodo — they called it a “taped window shocker” — and other online sites, and pretty soon millions of people were reading about it.

The window tape too was a cosmetic application; it was used to keep uncured sealant in place. By no stretch was it holding the window in place. The taped section was not a stressed area of the windscreen or frame. “The seal around the outside of a cockpit window is strictly an aerodynamic seal,” says the mechanic. “The real, structural seal is deeper inside. This is not an automobile windshield; the actual glass panel is sandwiched between the airframe structure and removable outer heavy stainless steel retainers. The outer, aerodynamic seal is a wet-mixed sealant which smooths the step from the windshield to the retainers. This sealant usually requires about 24 hours to fully cure. If the aircraft needs to fly during that period, it is permissible to apply tape to the outside to protect the sealant during flight. I have seen two different types of tape used: a clear Mylar tape and the aluminum speed tape. The company’s maintenance manual will tell you which kind is permitted, and for how long.”

But what of those “disturbing noises,” and why did the plane return to London? There could have been a minor pressurization leak, or a portion of the tape may have become unstuck. At high speeds a loose strip of tape can create a vibrating “scream” or squeal as it flutters against the airframe. This is harmless, but the crew, unable to see exactly what the problem was — and probably put off by the loud noise — thought it prudent to turn back.

One way or another, Ireland’s Ryanair always manages to find itself in the news. Michael O’Leary, the carrier’s flamboyant CEO, seems to thrive on publicity and controversy. Among O’Leary’s off-the-wall pronouncements, you might recall, was a proposal to lower crew costs by training flight attendants to sit in for the first officer. Cue a caricature of Mr. O’Leary, a big piece of speed tape over his mouth.

 

Note: Portions of this story originally appeared in the online magazine Salon.

 

This topic, and dozens more, are covered in the new book.

 

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47 Responses to “Oh My God There’s Duct Tape On My Plane!”
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  1. Cerretos remember! Going over the bars on a motorcycle is one thing.But going over the CONTROLS Not COoL.

  2. Adam Curry says:

    Put a cross with speed tape, Be just fine.

  3. Thomas K says:

    On a trip back from Hawaii (Maui KOGG) we were sitting in our DC-10 waiting to depart when all of the sudden the plane moved a little bit. Sitting in a window seat I peered over to the far side of the wing and noticed the captain, FO, and some maintenance guys staring at what appeared to be the result of a collision between some piece of maintenance equipment and the end of the wing. It had taken a small chunk not out of the wing proper but out of a vertical reinforcement. After spending about 45 minutes analyzing the situation the captain decided we were “good to go.” As Maui as a fairly short runway for a DC-10 the pilot flying firewalled the throttle and we took off like a rocket ship. The flight was one of the best I’d ever had and the approach and landing in Seattle was picture-perfect. So you have to trust your captain, flight crew and maintenance experts to “make the call.” If you can’t trust them then you really shouldn’t be flying.

  4. Curt Sampson says:

    “Among O’Leary’s off-the-wall pronouncements, you might recall, was a proposal to lower crew costs by training flight attendants to sit in for the first officer.”

    This is a brilliant idea. It would actually save twice as much, because anybody able to be an FO is pretty much able to be a Captain as well, so we can get rid of all of the pilots.

    And, I reckon, if an FA can so easily be trained to fly the plane, they’re obviously far over-qualified for an FA job, so how about we just put two FAs in the cockpit, get rid of the rest, and just have passengers volunteer to push the trolleys down aisles, make announcements, ensure the slides have been armed at the appropriate time, handle a 90-second aircraft evacuation in an emergency, etc. etc.

  5. Matthew Barich says:

    Actually, duct tape on a plane has been deadly before.

    Anyone remember Aeroperu Flight 603?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWpB6ZdSFOU

  6. katty wompus says:

    In 1998, I observed the taping of about a 2 sq ft green area on the right wing. The captain said something about it being “600 mph tape”, but it still kind of freaked me out.

    The maintenance man did not inspire any confidence. He kept dropping stuff and would have to climb down the ladder to retrieve it, then climb back up. This happened FIVE times. Lots of talking on the walkie.

    I wondered why there wasn’t anybody on the ground to hand the stuff back up to him. We were already late. He was, however, very meticulous when he would finally placed a piece of tape. It took four strips.

    My rational brain knew there was nothing to worry about. My dad was a Flight Engineer, but I couldn’t help staring at that patch a lot the whole way from PHL to DEN. My irrational brain kept conjuring up all sorts of disasters that could happen.

    One of those things you are just better off not seeing.

    This was before I saw Mythbusters make a whole plane out of duct tape and fly it (a little) 😉

  7. Wayne says:

    Just read your article and think it’s hilarious what non pros think about “un-safe” aircraft. I was looking at a picture of a 737-900ER and busted out laughing to myself. Wrap tape around the engine and engine mount from the leading edge of the wing to the front of the mount. Cool. Tell the crybabies to keep an eye on the starboard engine, it’s just taped on, but should be OK.

  8. Eirik says:

    Its pretty normal to see these tapes and it never worried me a bit.
    I just flew from Europe to New York on a B757 and it had tape on the top of the engine. I then flew straight to Houston on a B777 and it had tape on one of the flaps.

  9. Nick says:

    An unfortunate case when work is done hastily without the customer in mind–even if the sloppy fix is adequate but torques the psychological. My scariest incident occurred when the left rear engine on a DC-9 (remember them?) started banging extremely loudly behind my ear like a compressor blade was rattling loose inside. It continued during checklist runup until I caught the attendant’s eye and asked her to consult with the pilot. Everybody sitting in the rear section turned white, jaws dropped, and eyes opened like saucers at the noise. She called on the phone and the pilot cut the throttle back and the noise quieted. The FO came back and listened then went back to the office and proceeded with the takeoff. It was only after flap retraction that the announcement we had a compressor stall caused by high winds down the back end of the engine finally calmed the passengers. Hey guys, it may be nonchalant to you but consider us in the back.

  10. Patrick Wright says:

    When I was a kid back in the early 80’s I had a friend who was a pilot in the Naval Reserve. He took me on a tour of Dallas Naval Air Station. I saw an F-4 with speed tape on the wing tip where a ground service truck had bumped into it. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I ended up getting a little lecture from the Crew Chief about how “that’s not duct tape!”

  11. Bruce Arnold says:

    Speed tape, Duct tape, same thing, different name. As long as it meets spec. it is all the same. If it were outside the rules no mechanic would risk their license.

  12. Norm says:

    Ah, but you can use it inside… if you use the right kind. Several years ago on and American DC-10 out of HNL for SJC we had to turn back after 1 hour. Seems maintenance used the wrong tape on a heating duct causing smoke in the cabin! All passengers were put on other flights or overnight in a hotel. We returned on the same plane the next day… with a total of 30 passengers. A rather expensive mistake!

  13. cessna210g says:

    This reminds me of a scene in the movie Major League with Charlie Sheen. When the team boards a DC-3 and show a mechanic putting duck tape on a propeller blade.

  14. Rick Tuttle says:

    I’m a retired AF/ANG officer. Thirty years ago or so I was responsible for airlift for an overseas deployment. We had a C-141 stay overnight and because the cargo was loaded and we were waiting for the pax to be processed, we let civilians wander around on the ramp. The aircraft was refueled when a crewmember popped out of a cockpit window with a round of speedtape that he put on over one of the overwing refueling ports. One of the civilians asked what he was doing. He said, without hesitation, that they’d been having trouble with loose wings and the patch would help keep them on. We all laughed, but after he left one of the civilians asked if he was joking. I said we hadn’t lost any yet.

    I think the real problem was that some of the ports had been leaking and the tape fixed it. I guess the didn’t want an Air Transat 236 incident.

  15. not an anon says:

    Easy explanation — think of the parts this SuperDooperTape (I’m sure its wonderful stuff, worth every penny of the 700 dollars a roll it costs 🙂 is holding on like that pesky plastic air deflector under your car’s front bumper. Does it perform a function? Yes. Would you rather it stayed on forever? Yes. Does it break off? Sometimes. Does the car still drive alright without it? Yes.

    Also, I do wonder how much fuel is saved by the few hundred bucks of speed tape, adhesive, and mechanic time it takes to get a busted flap track fairing tail or wayward access panel put back on.

    • Randall says:

      My uninformed guess is that aircraft tape costs less than a missing, bent or broken (milled aluminum or composite) aircraft panel. And I doubt it takes an entire roll to tape a damaged panel.

  16. JimBob says:

    The price, $700 a roll, should be motivation enough to apply the tape carefully and without unnecessary overlaps. Or so one would think…

  17. dave says:

    Isn’t that just like the airlines to try and save money with duck tape. They probably waited for it to go on sale at Wal Mart before they bought it too.

    • UncleStu says:

      Dave,

      I hope you take my suggestion in the spirit of kindness and friendliness in which I offer it.

      It is clear that you did not read Patrick’s article before you commented on it.

      I suggest you do so in the future.

    • Wayne says:

      Since you can’t spell ‘duct’ correctly, even after seeing it in the title of the article, I suppose it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you don’t know that this tape is usually several hundred dollars per roll.
      True, they save money by not putting the plane out of service for several hours while the parts are replaced; They do that during regularly scheduled down-times.
      But even several hundred dollars is cheaper than losing a multi-thousand dollar part, and it is doubtful that an airline would try to save money at the risk of a multi-million dollar airplane.

  18. Chris Elberfeld says:

    I remember when “Scary Mary” Schiavo was freaked out by “duct tape” some years ago and ranted about it on TV.

  19. Bwco says:

    You can’t mention speed tape without telling the most likely apocryphal story of someone in an airlines shop who had to mail something and grabbed the first roll of tape he found. We all know how the rest of the story goes.

  20. Mark Richards says:

    “This sealant usually requires about 24 hours to fully cure. If the aircraft needs to fly during that period, it is permissible to apply tape to the outside to protect the sealant during flight.”

    I may be stood to correction here.. likely an epoxy is used. These best cure in a stable environment. Heating speeds things up. I would be very concerned expecting a sealant to properly cure in the flight environment where temperatures swing between 35 C and -50 C. The sealant will expand and contract. The contraction may leave gaps. The flexing during curing may weaken the seal.

    I’ve never had much confidence mixing engineering level technique in a mechanic environment, especially in the life-safety field.

    Rebooting flight computers to solve problems is another red flag. The affixing of tape, an aesthetic perhaps, leads one to the conclusion: slipshod.

    Not comforting.

    • Anonymous says:

      For reference epoxy is not used on windshields, it’s too brittle when cured to handle the expansion and contraction of the fusealge. Google this: PPG Aerospace PR-1425 for an example of one of the products used.

    • Wilbur says:

      @Mark Richards – sshh. Go back to sleep and let the pros take of this. Nothing is slipshod about applying an FAA approved tape to an airplane using FAA approved methods and techniques by FAA certificated technicians. This includes rebooting flight computers, which is often a step found in the FAA approved maintenance manuals.

  21. xxPaulCPxx says:

    It really only needs to be announced if it is visible to the passengers. Then it can be pointed out that “Those four strips of tape are so special and so expensive that two passenger tickets almost paid for the roll of tape.”

  22. Msconduct says:

    I’m not sure the PA announcement is the best idea. “By the way, you guys seated on the left, we totally don’t have duct tape on the plane! Nope, no duct tape here!” Could cause more wild-eyed panic than the tape itself.

  23. JuliaZ says:

    The only significant AS SEA -> DCA delay I’ve encountered on my frequent flights back and forth over the past three years happened because a pilot didn’t like the “look” of the landing gear on walk-around inspection. The gate agent got on the PA ~15 minutes before we were supposed to board and told us that the pilot was rejecting the plane for safety reasons and they would be able to move another plane into place and ready it in about 30 minutes, sorry for the delay. 23 minutes later, they were ready for us with a new machine and we were on our merry way in due course (arrived 8 minutes late, big whoop).

    Two hours into the flight, the pilot got on the horn to announce that he was right, maintenance had just informed him that the landing gear was bent (!!) and while it probably wouldn’t have been dangerous, he appreciated our patience as they got us a plane that “Boeing would be proud of.”

    Maybe I am naive, but pilots have their jobs AND their lives on the line when they throttle up to take off. The vast majority take it seriously and do inspect on their walk-arounds, it’s not a cursory glance. If the FAA, the mechanics, and the pilot say some speed tape is safe, I’m inclined to believe them and not worry too much. Sure, I’m a little superstitious, and when seated at the wing, I do remind my opposite wing-person that it’s their job to monitor their wing throughout the flight, but mostly, flying is the safest activity you’re going to do the day you fly, and you should relax.

    Critical systems have redundant redundancies, and except for things like pitot tubes, I can’t think of much like that that can bring a plane down. Rudder screws are gone now, I believe (old technology). I can’t think of a single crash caused by a temporary repair, but I challenge Patrick to find one. Seems like there must be one, vanishingly rare event.

    • UncleStu says:

      “I do remind my opposite wing-person that it’s their job to monitor their wing throughout the flight”

      Please tell me that you do that as a joke, or that you do it just to be cruel. I could undrstand that. I certainly hope you don’t mean that any passenger has the responsibilty to “monitor their wing” or any other aircraft parts.

  24. Jim says:

    A guy in the US Air Force pulled out a shiny silver roll of tape to affix a box to a wall. I asked him what it was, he replied “stainless steel tape”. Asked what it was for: “patching bullet holes in aircraft”. It took much of his strength to peel it off the roll.

  25. Iswk says:

    Oh by the way, when I say panel misaligned, I don’t mean the little small access panels improperly aligned and small things like that, I meant what looked like the whole *fuselage* skin panel (the big piece) was jutting outwards about 1cm into the airflow, which was filled and ‘smoothed’ to ease airflow with what looks like putty/adhesive/sealant.

    Yes looking like the very stuff you see in those “there I fixed it” pictures.

    Reference picture of which panel-> http://www.b737.org.uk/images/profile_737-400.jpg

    That line to the directly to right side of the front door, within reach of almost anyone.

    • Dan Ullman says:

      Very little of what you see inside of a commercial aircraft is structural. For example, the window you are looking out of the passenger compartment is actually two windows. One is attached to the plastic panel that makes up the wall and contains the shade that you could pull down, the other is part of the exterior of the aircraft and is attached with rivets that cost more then you ever want to shop for in a catalog. The entire interior wall could be removed and you would be perfectly safe (but maybe slightly chilly).

      The same can be said about the interior of the door. What you saw was cosmetic. There might be some safety issues if the plane had to be evacuated and it was undoubted fix within a very short time.

      Had the plane had a real problem it would not have taken off. If the door was not seated correctly the aircraft would not have taken off even if it was legal. It could not fly much above 10,000 feet without the passengers passing out.

      (sources: I worked for a plastic plant in Seattle that built a number of interior parts for Boeing and I also spent the better part of three hours on a 737 at the Kansas City airport because of a door that would not close correctly.)

      • Iswk says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        Well, to clarify. It was the exterior skin of the aircraft, not the interior of door, (but now that I think about it, it might also be the door section skin of the aircraft exterior fuselage that might be the one that is somehow bent/curved inwards, not joining the other skin section well and filled with putty/sealant/whatever.) As long as it’s the outside of the aircraft – sorta like the aircraft had a bent ‘chassis’ when built and the skins didn’t curve fit correctly to it. Just a car analogy.

        I flew anyway on that aircraft and am fine, of course. (It was my college years and I had an anything goes attitude)

        • Martin says:

          In my experience, 100% of pilots will refuse to take off in a plane if they think they have even a 0.00001% chance of the flight ending up with them dead. The pilot walked through the same door as you, Iswk, and would have been certain to walk right back out if s/he thought there was something to worry about. Also, airlines really hate it when their planes crash – they are expensive to replace, the insurance companies demand all sorts of paperwork, it looks awful on Twitter, and it ruins their on-time performance for the month, not to mention that most airline personnel actually care tremendously for their fellow employees and their passengers and, again, really really don’t want to send up a plane if anyone is going to end up dying. So, whatever the issue you thought you saw, the airline’s staff saw long before you, made a repair that conformed to the book, and checked, double-checked, and checked again before letting you walk through the door – as evidenced by you, your fellow passengers, and the crew all walking back out after a completely uneventful flight and a safe landing.

          • Iswk says:

            Oh, I’m pretty sure they conform and passed whatever checks they needed to pass……. but it’s one of those things that make you look and think, and for some people – seconds thoughts. It’s more the presentation of course, but then again I’m surprised such a ‘repair’ on the aircraft or whatever they call it, was actually made passable for use in service.

            Has anyone else encountered a repair such as this on a commercial jet? I mean, on smaller and slower unpressurized aircraft, sure… but sure was the highlight of all the flying I’ve done to this day..

  26. jellyfish says:

    “‘We never use, and don’t even stock, duct tape,’ notes a veteran airline mechanic.”

    What, no credentials?

  27. David W says:

    Also handy for adding very, very expensive racing stripes to flight-line vehicles.

  28. Kevin Brady says:

    O’leary really is a clown and he enjoys being one for the attention. Remember he filed with the British aviation authorities for a standing room on his flights? He proposed to have a pole with straps. They turned him down but he got his publicity

  29. Dan Ullman says:

    Actually. Cebu Pacific is a company that flies the Philippine flag. That might be duct tape.

  30. Iswk says:

    In 1997, I’ve flown on a Boeing 737-400 that has a panel near the door that is OBVIOUSLY out of alignment (think of it like a car hood or panel that isn’t shut / lined up properly, leaving a gap about 1cm that is filled with what looks like yellow adhesive. It’s like they put a wrong piece panel that doesn’t curve correctly to the fuselage, and filled it with glue or something or make air move around it better.

    It was obvious because it was right by the front door as we were boarding. And I actually reached out and poked it, it’s within reach of my hands.

    I’m NOT kidding. And people don’t believe me whenever I mention it anyway, saying that I’m making things up and slandering the airline or whatever.. so I would like to point out that if you happened to be on that same plane noticed it / or worked on that plane, please help verify it.. B737-400 Malaysia Airlines, 1997. Can’t provide more information other than that.

    Or Patrick, can you say something about that.

    Look, it might be that these such a thing above can actually pass some sort of safety thing or whatever otherwise they’d not fly, but it is very unsettling to see it.

  31. Bill Sell says:

    Patrick – great topic to bring up and the suggestion you make that pilots should simply comment and tell the passengers is a very good one. Throw in to the mix other things pilots could allay fears with a simple communication would be the banking turns on take off – like in Vegas at night it’s often repeated turns circling on climbing and people freak out if they don’t expect it. It would be simple to just add a little “And upon take off we will be making a few turns as we climb and those on the right side of the plane get an excellent view of Vegas from above…sorry for those on the left side.”

    Nothing fancy, but simple stuff. I did hear that on an outbound from San Diego flight in the late 1980s where they bank to clear the parking garage. Not sure if it’s still like that today there but we were given heads up and it didn’t phase anyone. Seeing “duct tape” on the plane if you knew it wasn’t duct tape would be helpful just as well.

    Keep up the reporting, and the interpreting of truth and fiction in aviation!

  32. RoÆther says:

    You see, this is the problem, people who don’t know things about planes see something they think they know what it is and they go crazy over the internet. I remember a similar event that got people panicking was once a plane was doing a fuel jettison and people freaked out because they thought they were leaking fluids.