International Aircraft Accidents Observations #2

Arrogance! When you look at the travesty that was the Malaysia Airlines MH370 aircraft accident, it’s hard to find sympathy for Malaysian officials that spearheaded the investigation. Clearly they were in way over their heads, fumbling through theories, looking embarrassingly foolish as they tried to lay out where the plane may have gone down.
But it’s arrogance on the part of these officials who cannot recognize when to defer to more experienced organizations; to ask for help from an investigatory group that could’ve raised the bar, giving the investigation the benefits of wisdom and experience. It is times like these that one questions the rules of diplomacy. Yes, the ICAO rules are clear. However, common sense should’ve prevailed and it should have been given over to the NTSB as soon as the aircraft went missing. But it was not.
The trail is cold; the new search area is roughly 60,000 square miles (www.bbc.com 9/5/2014); that’s 10,000 miles shy of the total square mileage of New England. In comparison the accident aircraft is smaller than a needle in a warehouse full of haystacks. Add to that, the aircraft is most likely in many pieces because hitting the ocean’s surface at that speed is like hitting a brick wall, the aircraft disintegrating on impact. It could be lying in an oceanic ridge, nose (or tail) down on a seamount’s side, which would significantly decrease its profile. The searchers are blind to within several yards; they are deaf since the pingers are dead. It would’ve been far easier to find the Titanic had the Carpathia not had an educated guess where it sunk.
Now the full grasp of the desperate mission is clearer. If only the Malaysian government had asked for help.

International Aircraft Accidents Observations #I

When a plane crashes overseas – even if it is United States registry – there are rules of diplomatic protocol to follow. The first rule is the country that the aircraft accident took place in has jurisdiction. This can be a problem when the urgency to find the cause whittles away at diplomatic decorum, but in the end, the rights of the investigating country have to be respected.
That’s not to say that one country, like the US, cannot offer assistance and consulting. More often than not this type of aid is gladly accepted, with the host country deferring to investigative organizations, like the NTSB, for running the investigation. This is the common sense approach that world leaders take to show the rest of the advanced nations that there is compassion for the victims’ families, a dedication to the truth, and transparency as the investigation progresses.
How does an aircraft accident investigation go wrong? Take Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that ‘crashed’ in March 2014. The entire time no one in-charge took control, spoke truthfully, or employed cogent communications with victims’ families or the media. This is exactly the type of petri dish that cultivates a conspiracy theory environment. Furthermore it lends itself to disbelief – in this case it is possible to suspend trust in the investigation and take the route of paranoia. The last thing civilized people of the world need to do: allow their collective imaginations to wander.

Aircraft Accident Experts

The Malaysian Airlines flight 370 story began over six months ago, March 8, 2014. Two weeks after the airliner went missing I was trying to avoid the disaster’s 3-ring circus coverage; I chose instead to follow the politics of what was going on. I turned on my favorite political commentary show which always showcased intelligent analysis. I was disappointed to find that the topic slid from what was happening in Washington to the MH370 accident. I was disappointed when I heard the commentators giving their opinions on where the plane was. What was more egregious was that the panel coordinator even asked their opinions on the subject, as if this were within their domain to make a call on.
Why would I navigate away from the razor-sharp aeronautical scrutiny of each of the major newscasts from the aircraft accident ‘experts’? For the simple reason that these ‘experts’ are not who they claim they are; they are a special kind of fool, one who can turn on tears while donning an air of experience that make the bigger fools – the newscasters – drool, while those who truly understand roll their eyes in frustration. Former political appointees fill the networks’ technical expert slots like customers on a fast food line.
I know political appointees who truly are experts in their field; they’ve turned wrenches or manned the controls, rose from the ranks to places of respect among their peers. However, they are more the exception than the rule. A political appointee is not necessarily chosen because of their knowledge, but because someone liked them enough to nominate them. They bring with them just enough awareness to stick to their adviser’s playbook and not to go too far off script. But I’ve attended enough NTSB hearings; I’ve heard these self-proclaimed ‘experts’ pose a question that has nothing to do with the tragedy being investigated; worried more about their wardrobe or if they are well-lit enough, than the facts of the aircraft accident being discussed.
But what makes a tragedy even more so is the total discounting of the victims’ families. What do I mean? If you recall the coverage of MH370, the ‘experts’ were throwing theories around as if their opinion was fact; gold-embossed truths based solely on their position – or former position – as an aviation ‘expert’ (in name or title only), e.g. Secretary, Administrator or Chairman. Think about that, your loved one is believed dead, someone you spent a lifetime married to or raising, disappears without a trace. Now upon the anguish of strings of false hopes and dead ends, some fool is vying for air time just so he/she can be counted as the most adroit fool of the lot.
I’ve met these family members. I was at Shanksville, Ground Zero and several other aircraft accident sites; I’ve paused in my searches so as not to remind these families of our purpose during the solemnity of a prayer service at the crash site. These family members have come to my office; I’ve heard their stories, listened silently as the tears flowed, often stood helpless as they tried to understand what happened. And for my honesty they would thank me, an honor I never felt I deserved, for truly the honor was for me to do what I could.
These siblings, parents, children and grandparents of flight MH370 are frightened; they hang on the word of anyone who will give them hope – not to be lied to; not to be deceived – but to be leveled with, compassionately, even at the cost of the truth. Instead they become the later victim, the pity targets whose torment is stretched to the point of breaking … and then some. How cruel!
Turn on your television; pick any commercial where a celebrity touts the virtues of a product. One comes to mind: a celebrity goes on and on ad nauseum about his/her new car, how the suspension is this or the mileage is that because of the new technology. How many would go out and buy that car? It is hawked by a person who wouldn’t know a suspension if they tripped over it; could not comprehend the concept of fuel-saving technology except for some guy said to read it off the cue card.
The panel coordinator in the first paragraph and his/her commentator panelists just made me realize how far we’ve come to simultaneously shoot for ratings while indifferently crushing an innocent surviving relative of an aircraft accident. The commentators are experts in their political field; viewers hung on these experts’ words with respect and faith. But in that moment – though I believe unintentionally – they were the celebrity selling a car; they became the tragedy, the fool. Because when you carry that much clout, it becomes your strength; a power over a willing and vulnerable audience wanting to be told it’s all okay. But it’s true: with great power comes great responsibility. Sometimes responsibility means knowing when to shut up.

Aircraft Accident Investigation as Fiction?

Why write a fictional story on aircraft accidents?
There are numerous books – both fiction and non-fiction – on the bookstore shelves that speak to aviation accidents and disasters. These describe in intimate detail how an accident investigation takes place, what resources are necessary, and what talent must be tapped. Often enough they are authored by people who have been a direct part of the process, touching the broken pieces of a once flyable aircraft, and applying an analytical view into what is left. These writings are often systematic, impersonal, yet informative looks at the entire process through the eyes of the author; a teaching instrument that breaks down the case piece by piece and lays it out for the reader; in short: a textbook.
I have known other authors who have written the non-fiction versions of accident investigation; they are true to the process; they are true to the reader, walking him/her through each case as it happened. They are textbooks, designed to teach – not necessarily to entertain. The very purpose of non-fiction is the telling of credible intelligence, to instruct for the purpose of education and/or the simple advancement of one’s knowledge. These authors have my respect.
Then there are fictional stories that tell a tale about an imaginary tragedy. Often these novels – and in some extent, movies – are obviously fabricated. I don’t say this to showcase my book (though this is my website); instead I say that it is because of these books that I wrote my novel.
People in aviation are a technically accurate lot and they are a hard audience to please. A good friend of mine, Bill O’Brien, said that, “mechanics are visual by nature; they must see what it is they are going to do, whether on paper or in their minds.” In the same respect flight attendants are more procedural, accomplishing their work in an orderly fashion. Pilots have to be reactive; although they are procedural in many respects, they have much more of the unexpected to reply to. But one thing all aviation people demand is … accuracy.
I’m reminded of a movie from the eighties; the protagonist needed to convince himself to go back sixty years in time. He accomplishes this by surrounding himself in detail; immersing himself into the 1920s; he creates … a story to live in. He succeeds so well that he literally goes back to live in the 1920s. However, at the conclusion his adopted world crumbles when he finds a penny dated ‘1980’ in his back pocket; suddenly he’s returned to the 1980s. Furthermore, he can no longer ‘go back’, being forever ripped from the past and locked in his home decade.
That’s what a novel is, the ability to forsake one’s world for another; to be totally engrossed in the story. But it has to be accurate; it cannot insult the intelligence of the reader; force him/her to accept, not the impossible, but the unlikely.
For me, many of the novels and films about fictional aircraft accident investigations are unlikely; they rudely tear me out of the story and dump me unceremoniously in my chair, staring angrily at a collection of now useless pages that cost me $15 or more. A pilot cannot nose dive into the ocean and survive; an aircraft cannot whack its wing against a building and continue flying; and a helicopter blade cannot rip through brick and mortar like a scalpel through cream cheese and remain intact. It is supposed to be fictional, not unbelievable.
The reason I write fiction – despite the fact that what I write is based on my experience as an investigator – is also to convey what I know and have done, but not in the noble way of the non-fiction writer. My purpose is to ensnare the reader; trap him/her in a story and while holding them captive, allow them a view into my world. My job is to take them on a journey – an expedition immersed in reality – through the developing plot. I get them access to testing of a sister aircraft; sit in on the NTSB progress meetings; and I let them experience the roadblocks and victories each distinguished investigator must go through as they keep their promise of: Never Again, to the victim’s families.
If the reader encounters a teaching moment, so be it. They should have known the trip would be dangerous.
So please, when you read my book, know that you will be pulled through a story steeped in authenticity with characters portrayed with respect and credibility. You will never find a troublesome penny to drag you from the ride.

Droning on

I usually read the Wall Street Journal, especially the Opinion columns; I find them insightful and, above all, intelligent commentary. But a series of articles by one of their writers has me, I guess, befuddled. It has to do with the Federal Aviation Administration and its control over the unmanned vehicle business.

Now I’m an avid capitalist; if that offends any one, I’m sure I’m sorry. However my views come from working in the aviation industry for thirty years and – right or wrong – they are founded in experiences that I’ve lived; I like the concept of entrepreneurism.

But I’m afraid one particular writer for the Wall Street Journal is becoming blinded by what he/she perceives as a restraining of the free marketing system, arguing in favor of unrestricted access to our skies; that they should not lie in the control of a government organization, but with competition. Normally my background would applaud his opinion, give it a wide berth and even run tackle for it; unlimited government intervention is the grandfather bad idea of all bad ideas. But in this case I have to side with the opposition.

We have an FAA for the simple reason that for every ten responsible pilots, mechanics, engineers, etc; there is one who’s ignitor is misfiring. I can think of countless events where trained airmen of every cloth has buzzed a populated beach, combined two airplanes that make Frankenstein look like a high school science project, or engineered a fix on something that wasn’t broke. And that’s the aviation people.

Now you might say, how much trouble can an unsupervised person get into with a drone? My response: How much damage can a lone fool do with a laser pointer? There will always be those who have in mind the desire – not to be famous – but to be infamous.

Consider the Miracle on the Hudson, US Airways flight 1549; they take off of runway 4 and hit a flock of birds, FOD out both engines, and glide into a water landing. A success story made possible by two very qualified pilots and random circumstances that smiled down upon them. But what if they had NOT been launched off Runway 4, but instead off of Runway 22? Or Runway 13? Then the outcome would have been a lot different because they would have been gliding over heavily populated areas of Queens and Manhattan.

And what if it wasn’t a flock of birds, but someone on the ground who intentionally flew drones close to the aircraft on a dare or because they were feeling god-like; the aircraft accident would be incredibly tragic, both in the air and on the ground. Am I being fatalistic? Do I have an overactive imagination?

Perhaps. However, I know that there have been cases where drones were flown illegally near major airports. I know the ability to catch these offenders of safety is not that easy. And I also know that if people are willing to take the chance to bring down an aircraft – helicopter or airliner – with a laser, there are people crazy enough to do it with a drone. Why else would someone intentionally fly a drone near a major airport’s launching aircraft?

So you see it isn’t the FAA’s desire to step on capitalism or even the average drone operator’s practice sessions or fun. The FAA still has a job to do and that’s to assure the skies are safe, yes, even at the risk of a free market idea.