Ever since the Mangans gave up their comfortable house in Kansas City and moved here a year ago, the family has been living in a kind of...

Share story

VIENNA — Ever since the Mangans gave up their comfortable house in Kansas City and moved here a year ago, the family has been living in a kind of suspended animation.

It almost looks as if they just moved into their two-bedroom apartment near Austria’s old Imperial Palace: Some boxes shipped from the U.S. have never been open and the bedroom windows are still covered with sheets because the family ran short of money before they could buy curtains.

Joseph Mangan, 41, is a whistle-blower. As a result he and his family find themselves fighting a legal battle in a foreign country with unfamiliar laws that have left them almost penniless.

Most Read Stories

Cyber Sale! Save 90% on digital access.

A year ago, Mangan told European aviation authorities that there was a problem with a computer chip on the Airbus A380, the biggest and costliest commercial airliner ever built. The A380 is a double-decked engineering marvel that will carry up to 800 passengers — double the capacity of a Boeing’s 747. It will enter airline service next year.

Mangan alleges that flaws in a microprocessor could cause the valves that maintain cabin pressure on the A380 to accidentally open during flight, allowing oxygen to leak out so rapidly that everyone aboard could lose consciousness within seconds.

It’s a lethal scenario similar to the 1999 crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five others when their Learjet lost cabin pressure and they blacked out. The plane flew on autopilot for hours before crashing in South Dakota.

Mangan was chief engineer for TTTech Computertechnik, a Viennese company that supplies the computer chips and software to control the cabin-pressurization system for the A380, which is being assembled at the Airbus plant in France.

Last October, TTTech fired Mangan and filed civil and criminal charges against him for revealing company documents, arguing the information was proprietary and he had no right to disclose it to anyone.

TTTech executives denied any wrongdoing. They said there had been a minor glitch in its system but that it had been fixed.

Mangan countersued, saying he had been wrongly terminated for raising legitimate safety concerns. Unlike U.S. laws that shield whistle-blowers from corporate retaliation, Austrian law offers no such protection. Earlier this year an Austrian judge imposed an unusual gag order on Mangan, seeking to stop him from talking about the case.

Mangan posted details about the case anyway on his own Internet blog. The Austrian court fined him $185,000 for violating the injunction.

And the Vienna police, who are conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, searched the family’s apartment for four hours, downloading files from Mangan’s computer as his children watched.

Boxes of documents detailing his allegations clutter the living room, but Mangan can’t show the material or talk about the case — at least in Austria.

To discuss his case with The Los Angeles Times, Mangan took a five-hour train ride to Munich, Germany, where the gag order doesn’t apply. “I don’t want to destroy TTTech,” he said. “But I still get nightmares of people dying. I just can’t let that happen.”

House had to be sold

To help pay living expenses and legal fees, Mangan sold his house in Kansas. With only about $300 left in his bank account, Mangan missed a Sept. 8 deadline to pay his $185,000 fine and faces up to a year in jail. This month he’s likely to be called before a judge on his criminal case.

The family expected to be evicted from their apartment, but their church in Vienna took up a collection to pay their rent.

At the moment, Mangan is hiding out at a church member’s home because he fears he could be arrested at any time.

Mangan’s wife, Diana, has been reading a book, “Lord, Where Are You When Bad Things Happen?” to make sense of the family’s ordeal. “He’s trying to do the right thing. Why are we suffering for it?”

On both sides of the Atlantic, Mangan’s case has quietly raised eyebrows in the close-knit aerospace community, which is fascinated by his allegations but unclear about how serious they are.

Hans Weber, a veteran aviation consultant in San Diego, can’t say whether Mangan has a legitimate claim because he hasn’t seen the evidence. But he is baffled by the extent to which Airbus and TTTech have “gone after” Mangan.

“There is something really unusual about this case in the sense that there is this hard standoff between Airbus and the individual,” Weber said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Key design allegation

One of Mangan’s key allegations is that because of the A380’s unusual design, any loss of cabin pressure would be extremely dangerous.

Most passenger jets have two cabin-pressure valves, with separate motors operating each. But because aircraft makers want redundancy on safety systems the planes have three motors for each valve, with different chips controlling each motor. The Boeing 777, for example, has cabin-pressure chips made by Motorola, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Most jetliners also have a manual override so that the pilot can take control in an emergency.

Airbus has acknowledged that its designers faced challenges as they attempted to reduce the A380’s weight. The company elected to go with four outflow valves on the A380, with only one motor on each valve, which are slightly larger than a cabin window. Each motor uses a TTTech controller chip, and there is no backup manual-override system.

“Just there, I would not be happy,” said Chris Lomax, a retired engineer who helped design the cabin-pressurization systems for Boeing’s 737 and 747. “If all four valves [on the A380] were driven wide open, it would be nip and tuck for the crew to get their [oxygen] mask on and begin a descent.”

Airbus notes that the A380 has achieved redundancy by installing the extra cabin-pressure valves, which provide a safety cushion in case a valve fails. As for Mangan’s allegations, they are “an unsubstantiated crusade,” said Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell.

“Don’t you think we would look into it, and if we found it was true we would do something about it?” McConnell asked.

A380 behind schedule

The A380, which is undergoing flight testing, is a year behind schedule due to unspecified problems. But Airbus has told aviation authorities there is ample time to fix any problems that are discovered during the certification process.

TTTech executives insist that their product is safe. They portray Mangan as a disgruntled ex-employee seeking retribution and eager to blackmail them. “He’s trying to destroy the company,” Chief Executive Stefan Poledna said.

TTTech supplies parts to Hamilton Sundstrand, a United Technologies unit, that is building the A380’s cabin-pressurization system. “The matters raised by Mr. Mangan have been thoroughly reviewed,” a Hamilton Sundstrand spokeswoman said, “and safety of flight will be assured.”

The European Safety Aviation Safety Agency, which is handling the A380’s flight-worthiness certification, has reviewed Mangan’s allegations. “We have done the research and acted accordingly,” spokesman Daniel Holtgen said. “We can’t comment on it because it is a matter for Airbus.”

Mangan says the European aerospace establishment is whitewashing his claims because of enormous cost savings that will be realized if TTTech’s chips are approved for the A380.

TTTech’s chip originally was designed for use in autos and the company is trying to get it certified as an existing, “commercial off-the-shelf” product that is acceptable for the A380, according to court records.

Mangan, however, alleges that the chip is being customized for aviation purposes, and thus must undergo stringent testing before being approved by regulators.

If regulators decide that TTTech’s chip is a simple commercial device and can be used in the A380, it would then be available for other new aircraft without having to pass costly safety reviews.

That’s why Mangan alleges that the industry is so adamant about squashing his claims. Airbus, Boeing’s European rival, surpassed Boeing in 2003 as the world’s largest maker of airliners.

Mangan’s attorney, Franz Karl Juraczka, advised him last spring to leave Austria before his legal problems snowballed. Mangan refused: “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if anything went wrong with that airplane.”

Technology enthusiast

Mangan was born in Ohio and grew up in San Jose, and he always had a fascination for science and technology, family members and friends said. When Apple introduced its first personal computer, the 12-year-old Mangan took apart the family’s television set to try to build a PC for himself. He also made a satellite receiver out of coffee cans to try to get weather data from an orbiting satellite.

At 16, while still in high school, he got a part-time job for IBM in San Jose helping to design robotic manufacturing machines. He attended San Jose State University and the University of Massachusetts but never received a college degree.

Later, while working for Honeywell on a military-jet project, he came into contact with TTTech, a company that was founded by two university professors in Vienna to market their computer chips.

Drawn by the firm’s potential, Mangan had bright prospects in February 2004 when he was hired as chief engineer at a salary of $100,000, plus $25,000 in moving expenses. Diana Mangan packed up their three children, Shelley, now 12; Timothy, 9; and Jarrod, 6, and they arrived in Vienna in the summer of 2004, just in time for school.

With Austria’s subsidized medical care and after-school-care program, it looked like it would be a great place to raise a family. And the family was pleased to discover that Vienna had a Baptist church.

Mangan began work on the chip for the A380’s cabin-pressurization system.

Mangan said he found serious flaws early last year in TTTech’s computer chips and the software for the A380’s cabin-pressurization system, according to legal documents. The system was executing “unpredictable” commands when it received certain data, possibly causing the pressure valves to open accidentally.

Because all four motors in that A380’s cabin-pressurization system use the same type of flawed TTTech chip, Mangan says, “If one fails they all fail.”

Yet his employer ignored his concerns, he alleges, because fixing the glitches would be costly, could take up to a year and would further delay the A380’s launch.

TTTech tried to cover up the defects and forged Mangan’s signature on documents to suggest the software passed internal tests and reviews, he alleges in court documents.

“Once they slip this onboard the A380, they can justify using it on all other aircraft,” Mangan said.

Indeed, Boeing has ordered TTTech’s chips for the flight-control system for its upcoming mid-size 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing executives said they were unaware of any problems with TTTech’s chips but said further questions should be addressed by TTTech.

Within days of firing Mangan last fall, TTTech sued him in civil court to retract his statements to aviation authorities about the potential defect.

Unlike the U.S. legal system, in Austria individuals can file criminal charges. A few weeks later TTTech also sued Mangan in criminal court.

Then, in December, a civil court issued an injunction barring Mangan from talking about his case.

Throughout the family’s ordeal, Mangan remained dogmatic about not being chased out of Austria and to stand up for what he believed in.

The Mangans live day to day, not sure what will come next. If they can’t pay their rent, they hope to return to the U.S. to live with Diana’s parents in Ohio, although they have maxed out their credit card and can’t afford plane tickets.

Mangan is getting ready to file for personal bankruptcy.

TTTech has offered to drop its legal action against Mangan, court records show, and pay him three months of severance, if he retracts his statements. But Mangan has refused.

Mangan said he is looking for a new job. In the past year he contacted dozens of aerospace firms in the U.S. and Europe. None has returned his calls.

“Nobody wants to touch me,” he said.