Aircraft accident documentaries are funny things; not humorous funny, but strange. Having participated as the NTSB team leader in several accidents, I was asked to be videoed for the Air Midwest 5481 accident; to explain my part in the investigation. It was odd watching myself, but I felt I succeeded in walking the viewer through the tedium of my job.
Then I asked a friend about an international accident I had worked and he pointed me to the proper Youtube video.
It was surreal; I kept asking myself, “Is this the accident I worked?” Not even close. I won’t name the accident because the ‘hero’ investigator is not a bad guy. The U.S. ‘investigator-in-charge’, however, is a bag of rocks (my apologies to the Bag of Rocks Association), especially on the subject of maintenance. I kept expecting to hear the theme from Jaws or after every ‘revelation’ a foreboding dun-dun-du-u-u-n. The tension was absurd.
I looked again at the Air Midwest documentary and realized that it, too, tended toward overacting and overreacting on part of the NTSB people and the cast; a back-slapping fest feeding more attention to those falsely credited with having an idea than to the unbelievable stupidity that caused the accident to begin with.
Why do we present documentaries on tragedies? They aren’t about finding Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. They’re about real people who became real victims; family and friends thrust into a roller coaster of hope and hopelessness; about professionals trying to find out why and not worrying about who gets the credit.
I purposely omitted in my novels the human suffering, the ‘rubbernecking’ type of writing because it isn’t necessary. It speaks better to allow the reader to fill in the blanks if they choose; anything gratuitous adds nothing to a story.
I understand that a show needs to appeal to a wide audience; that if one were to accurately portray an investigator like me it would be akin to watching a continent drift. However, we are talking about human tragedy on a large scale; hundreds of lives lost in seconds, in many cases in pain and fear. Is it right to treat such events as entertainment?
Aircraft accidents, whether in the General Aviation or Commercial aviation industry, are disasters. They are tragedies that devastate families, destroy lives, and upend confidence in aerospace. It helps to point out that in this world of fallible, man-made uncertainty there are those airlines that will always reach out a hand to help.
We often hear about the wrongs that airlines do with regards to fares or over-booking; indeed, these are questionable issues that taint the airline industry’s image. But more frequently unrecognized is when the airlines are involved in philanthropic undertakings: providing free services simply because they can. They have the aircraft, they have the personnel, and they have the financial means to carry out these projects, yet stay well below the radar of the media and public eye.
Just recently, following the devastating earthquake in Nepal, FedEx committed aircraft, pilots and aid; they joined with international relief organizations to move medical supplies, medicines, food, water, temporary housing, and communication equipment to Nepal in a humanitarian effort to reach out to fellow human beings. To be fair, most cargo and passenger airlines have been helping others with disaster relief in all corners of the globe.
And they have been doing it for years, in both large and small ways. Do you remember Baby Jessica McClure, who fell in a well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, TX, in October 1987? The equipment used to free that 18 month old was shipped for free on a cargo jet. Whether it’s a tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti, each are examples where airlines have stepped up, they’ve supported the military assistance efforts and they’ve represented the best in human nature.
And they’ve made disasters just a little bit easier to bear.
Aircraft accidents are tragedies; they strike without warning and the innocent are not immune. But what I’ve found while working for the NTSB is that a greater tragedy is not learning from an accident, that allowing it to repeat itself is an even greater tragedy still.
Last week I wrote that an organization with limited resources such as the FAA has, cannot be expected to oversee the vast multitudes of pilots that report to one major airline with only fifty to sixty inspectors. The number of airworthiness (maintenance) (A/W) inspectors at the same FAA certificate office is equal to that of the Operations inspectors – fifty or sixty. But while an airline’s pilots may number in the thousands, an airline’s mechanics and maintenance personnel may number in the tens of thousands, all answerable to fifty or sixty inspectors working nine-to-five, five days a week.
This is not an exaggeration.
An airline’s mechanic seniority list often runs into the thousands; the company decides how many according to factors, e.g. the number of wide-bodies and/or narrow-bodies. They are then broken down into departments, e.g. Hangar, Flight Line, Avionics, etc. The departments, e.g. line maintenance, are broken down even further into base line and field line, which consists of perhaps two or as many as eighty mechanics per airport, depending on how many flights and fleet model assigned. With a worldwide airline, the number of airports increase and are spread through dozens of countries across the globe.
That’s hardly tens of thousands.
Now add contract maintenance and vendors. Heavy maintenance may be accomplished anywhere in the world the airline arranges for it. Large numbers of maintenance personnel will service a wide-body airliner’s heavy check. Hundreds of vendor employees are responsible for the myriad of aircraft parts: actuators, flight controls, avionics equipment, etc. The FAA’s A/W inspectors are responsible for these contractors and vendors contracted to perform maintenance on the aircraft.
In the late 1990s an aircraft crashed due to negligence on the part of a vendor; in the early 2000s another fatal crash caused by vendor negligence and then again three years later for the same reason. In all, 134 lives were lost from the same cause within ten years.
Not learning from the accident? That … is the tragedy.
When I worked for the NTSB – and even after – many in management would lay everything wrong at the feet of the FAA. Plane overloaded? FAA isn’t doing its job. Pilot had stroke on final? FAA caused it. World hunger? Those FAA guys again. An asteroid hitting Manhattan? Get the Administrator before a Congressional hearing.
No doubt the FAA deserves many of the criticisms it receives; there’s enough reason for finger-wagging to go around. But as I’ve stated, if you want real problem solving, you have to get some perspective.
I’ve done audits on FAA certificate management offices (CMO) that oversee major airlines, those with in excess of 500 commercial jets in their revenue fleet; an airline that size employs in excess of several thousand pilots. Each pilot is rated on one or more aircraft, whether in the left or right seat, in most cases according to seniority.
By contrast the CMO may have fifty to sixty Operations (pilot) inspectors, of which managers are included in the total. These sixty men and women have to oversee several thousand pilots, 24/365. They do this surveillance in hundreds of cities in numerous countries. And they do it in forty work hours a week (not counting vacations, sick time and training) because the government does not allow overtime.
Now I may just be playing the realist, but that is not a recipe for complete oversight. These facts, plus the FAA’s non-commerce role, is why industry safety is determined in large part by each airlines’ commitment to pilot training and health.
Too often I hear – and mostly from people who should know better – that the Department of Transportation and its various departments are the cause of all our travel woes. It’s easy to launch attacks against an entity that won’t fight back; after all, what’s the point? What I would suggest is that those who look to government as the lightning rod for … EVERYTHING … really don’t understand the transportation industry.
Look, I’m not a herald for the government employee; far from it. However it’s unrealistic to expect the Federal Aviation Administration to successfully get in front of an airline’s day-to-day issues; besides – technically – it’s not their job. DoT organizations like the FAA, Federal Railroad Administration, etc. are not commerce organizations; they cannot dictate how a transport operator does business; they’re there to assure said operator conducts themselves safely.
A common misperception – especially by the NTSB – is that the FAA must stand over an operator at all times. That’s unrealistic as will be looked into next week. But for now let’s look at the flight hour issues raised in the Colgan Airways flight 3407 or the UPS flight 1354 accidents.
UPS is a nocturnal airline; their fleet flies during the night hours to provide deliveries during the day. A pilot or mechanic applying to UPS for a job needs to understand … and accept this fact or the aviator should consider applying elsewhere. As long as the airline follows the rules as apply to flight hours, as a non-commerce agency, they cannot suspend the operations. I worked for FedEx for nineteen years; half my time as an aircraft mechanic was spent working through the midnight hours because that’s when the aircraft flew.
Let’s also observe the Colgan Airways flight 3407’s first officer’s cross-country odyssey; there isn’t anything negligent about her working (domiciled) out of Newark’s Liberty airport while living in Washington State. Many pilots at FedEx are domiciled in Memphis or Indianapolis, but live in another city and/or state; as long as they arrive at their domicile on time and ready for flight, the company wouldn’t interfere with choice of home. Again, the FAA cannot dictate where the pilot lives or even how much they are paid; that’s commerce and out of the FAA’s jurisdiction. It was the first officer’s decision to commute back and forth; Colgan was only concerned with her presence at flight time; it was her responsibility to be rested and on time.
Is that fair? Yes. Is it compassionate? Maybe, maybe not. The point is we are all adults in a grown-up, and often unforgiving, industry. The obligation to act responsible falls on the individual, especially if the operator is following the rules.