Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion; it sent seven astronauts to their deaths on that clear morning. With an event so high profile, one would expect that the likelihood of a similar tragedy would be near impossible, especially considering the number of Shuttle missions over the decades.
What the Challenger disaster was attributed to was a lack of communication; a break in the chain of decision making that was either money conscious or simply could not think outside the box to consider the possibility of disaster.
Fast forward to February 1, 2003 – almost fifteen years to the day – Challenger’s sister ship, the Columbia suffers a disaster just as devastating, albeit on the back end of the mission. Did NASA learn from the Challenger enough to prevent a decision making mistake again? The answer would be: No. Again, the decisions to ignore the signs were ignored and seven other astronauts were killed by negligence.
How can we expect aviation to benefit from the lessons of disaster when something so high profile as the Space Shuttle program cannot?
Accident investigations are a strange thing; they are the topic of choice at the beginning but soon diminish into trivial pursuits with no direction. They become victims of the truths real enemy: Time.
Over time people forget or their memories become hazy. The media becomes impatient for newness; they move onto other things. Eventually a new emergency rises up to take the spotlight and the tragedy that occupied everyone’s mind turns to yellowed newspaper copy.
I made a statement in Twitter today about an accident I worked; I said I doubted the results of the investigators’ findings. That’s not necessarily the fault of the investigators, but it does put the results into question.
American 587 crashed on November 12, 2001. The vertical stabilizer snapped off in flight causing the aircraft to become uncontrollable in a most violent manner. One of my jobs was to acquire an identical vertical stabilizer for testing and there was only one left; it came off an Airbus A300 with a composite tail somewhere in the Middle East. During shipment the test stab fell of the ship and floated in the water for several hours, enough to cause irrevocable seawater damage to the test stab. I never found out how the testing for the stabilizer was conducted, so when I stated that in Twitter it was because there were not many test stabs around, the results had to be less than accurate.
I guess we’ll never know.
Jersey City recently received clearance from the FAA to raise 950 foot business office tower. What does that mean? It’s a tower; surely it doesn’t pose a threat to aviation as long as it’s put in the correct place, right?
The approval of a structure of significant height is no easy task; several contributing factors must be considered. Not only would the obvious problem of commercial traffic be a big concern, but also the placement of the tower near smaller airports and fields.
In addition, the type of tower, e.g. is it a building housing businesses or is it a radio tower. If it’s a radio tower, will the lighting for night departure and approaches be adequate; will its signals jam aircraft communications?
The tower in question in Jersey City being an office building should be placed to guarantee not only normal traffic from nearby airports like Newark-Liberty, but also not stand in the way of emergency diversions, that all air traffic has a clear path to make an emergency turn in cases of, e.g. an aborted approach wave off.
There are other factors, to be sure. But this should give an idea of the problems with erecting even the simplest of towers can be.
Tomorrow marks the thirteenth anniversary of the Air Midwest 5481 accident in Charlotte, North Carolina. Twenty-one people died in what would be a grand example of how NOT to run an airline’s maintenance department. There is not enough room in twenty blog postings to scratch the surface of what caused the deaths of 21 people – and that’s not including the fact that what was learned that year was forgotten as soon as the ink dried on the report.
Air Midwest was a tragedy of errors; the National Geographic episode ‘Dead Weight’ that played on the Mayday series showed airline workers shaking their heads at mistakes made by the flight crew; or lead investigators getting inspired signs from heaven about what to look for. These things did not happen; I know because I was there. For one, the NTSB didn’t figure out about the cables being mis-rigged; the FAA did and they passed that information onto me right away. I did find out WHY they were mis-rigged – and that, itself, was mind-blowing. The other error was the aft center of gravity, an error that a smart engineer named Kevin in the NTSB did discover – again, mind-blowing. NOBODY suspected that weight problem before the accident.
The point of accident investigation isn’t who gets credited for finding the ‘magic bullet’ – nobody cares; the victims’ families don’t care, the industry doesn’t care, NOBODY. What is important is that we learn forever what went wrong and why; more importantly it is important that we do care about making it a one-time event, never to be repeated.
Unfortunately that does not happen. The circumstances that led to the tragedy of Air Midwest 5481 had occurred several times prior and just last week were found to be happening again.
We never learn.