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Qantas and Boeing in a Pickle: What is a Pickle Fork?

Some are calling for the grounding of Qantas’ fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft because of cracks in a component known as the ‘pickle fork’. Is this something we should be worried about?

The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA), the union for aircraft engineers in Australia, is calling for these planes to be grounded pending Qantas’ ability to determine which planes are safe to fly and which planes are not.

The alleged danger stems from cracks in the pickle fork. The pickle fork saga has been occurring since October, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration required inspections of some Boeing 737 aircraft after cracks in pickle forks led to aircraft being overhauled in China.

What is a pickle fork?

The pickle fork is a component of an aircraft that attaches the body of the plane to its fuselage/wing structure. It helps manage stress and the forces that bend the connection between the wings and jet body. It’s called a ‘pickle fork’ because it looks like a kitchen utensil. Much more detailed information can be found in Boeing’s patent document.

pickle fork

Photo source: Leeham Co.

It is unusual for pickle forks to have cracks. One former Boeing engineer said that pickle forks are “designed to last more than 90,000 landings and takeoffs without cracking … and there could be dire results if the system fails”. The secretary of ALAEA said that the pickle fork is “a primary structure which takes the load off the wing”. If the system fails, it could “cause loss of control of an aircraft, and Qantas shouldn’t be flying them”.

The first crack on a Qantas plane that was discovered was about one inch long. It was relatively small, but such cracks can expand quickly especially when they come up against aerodynamic forces.

what is a pickle fork

Boeing and Qantas might have found themselves in a pickle.

Qantas announced that they would inspect their fleet, but have not made the announcement that they would ground their Boeing 737 aircraft.

Should pickle fork cracks in Qantas planes have travellers worried?

Qantas stated that it removed the three aircraft where cracks were found and that they would be repaired. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) believed that those steps were enough to take.

The pickle forks are not the only component holding the aircraft to the body. If the crack fully expanded, the wing would not just simply fall off.

The cracking is certainly a problem, but CASA representative Peter Gibson said that there isn’t enough evidence to support grounding Qantas’ entire 737 fleet.