Partnership Aims to Strengthen Cockpit Doors

Latch maker teams with SI to strengthen cockpit doors.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration moved quickly to batten down the hatches of airplanes—literally.

Backed by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, the FAA in October of that year began rolling out a series of new manufacturing and safety requirements for U.S. commercial airlines called SFARS (Special Federal Aviation Regulations).

While an initial phase of SFARs reinforced cockpit doors with steel bars, a subsequent FAA publishing in January 2002 called on manufacturers to build cockpit doors that protected against small-arms fire and grenades. But there was a twist. In addition to being able to withstand the blasts, the doors had to be able to continue functioning in the event of cockpit decompression.

The new requirement, which had a deadline of April 9, 2003, set off a chain reaction in the manufacturing industry, but one company in particular, Hartwell Corp., the Placentia, Calif., latching system manufacturer, was not only interested in responding to the challenge, but also better prepared than ever before to do so.

The company, which has been designing and manufacturing door and compartment latches on airplanes for decades (its latches are in the original B-52), was preparing to deploy three new badly needed Mori Seiki Co. Ltd. computer and numerical control machines.

But the horsepower of the three NV5000s, which Hartwell secured in May 2002, was just part of the story. Arguably as important for Hartwell as the pricey six-figure hardware was the partnership it signed with systems integrator Ellison Manufacturing Technologies to purchase, deploy and maintain the machines.

"Other [SIs] were offering similar machines but not much more after that," said Simon Elliott, vice president of logistics and operations at Hartwell. "There was the price of the machines, but what we were offering was a strategic alliance."

Part of Hartwells strategy, Elliott said, is to grow the company, and quickly. To do that, he said, its necessary to turn to outsiders.

"Theres a response time to it," Elliott said.

An increased response time was exactly what the company needed to design and build a new latching system that could meet the new FAA guidelines. According to Elliott, Hartwell tag-teamed the project with Ellison to take a completely new system from design to production in less than 12 weeks.

"This is a completely revolutionary design," Elliott said, one that was durable enough to withstand a 300-joule impact but also able to allow the cockpit door to vent in the event of a loss of pressure.

Specifically, Hartwell drafted the design for the new system, and Ellison optimized the manufacturing process, according to Ellison officials.

"Hartwell did the initial design, and then we came in and said we made that process easier to manufacture," said Graham Hooper, president of Ellison, in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. "Together, we got the design to where it was easier to make. ... The long and short of it is, for Hartwell, it was a roaring success."

On April 9, 2003, on deadline, the FAA announced that more than 10,000 aircraft flying over the United States were equipped with hardened cockpit doors.