Photo of Jan D. Achenbach

Jan D. Achenbach

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his seminal contributions to engineering research and education in the area of wave propagation in solids and for pioneering the field of quantitative non-destructive evaluation.

Jan Achenbach on the Importance of plane safety

In 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was traveling between Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii when the top of the forward cabin of the aircraft blew off at 20,000 feet. One flight attendant died, and 65 passengers and crew were injured.

The accident was a significant event in aviation history, as well as in the career of Jan D. Achenbach, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, who made it his goal to ensure incidents similar to the Aloha flight would not happen again.

Achenbach, founder of Northwestern’s Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, developed a more efficient and effective method of testing aircrafts for cracks, corrosion and other flaws.

Rather than having a mechanic remove the aircraft’s wing, or go inside the wing to inspect the structure, Achenbach used ultrasonics—in the form of small, implanted sensors to act as warning signals—to detect defects in the materials, similar to the way doctors detect tumors in the human body.

This type of “Structural Health Monitoring,” as Achenbach called it, reduced inspection time from 800 to 50 hours, and ultimately made the aviation industry a safer one.

By Sydni Dunn