Aircraft Accidents and Learning from the Past

American Airlines retired twenty MD-80 aircraft on August 23rd. It is the end of an era where the airliners of the pre-fly-by-wire class continue to disappear. Since the retirement of the 727, early 737 models, L-1011 and the DC-10s, attention to the ways of the past are going away with the acquired experience gleaned over years before the computer. But just because systems change, doesn’t mean they don’t remain the same … in some ways.
I watched with pride several videos of different FedEx 727s, newly retired, as they taxied into their permanent position at the school or airport emergency practice pad they were donated to. FedEx, my alma mater, donated each one of those aircraft; they will serve a new generation of aircraft technician students and airport emergency response personnel; those people will learn valuable lessons that will help save lives and help teach the mechanics of the future.
The reason this is important is that aircraft systems of old – even though they are replaced by wires – don’t really go away. Take the flight control systems of many modern airliners; they are fly-by-wire systems, cutting the weight down by removing tons of cables throughout the aircraft and replacing them with computer wire. However, each system has a redundant system in place that is cable driven, e.g. maybe one spoiler out of seven on each wing has a back-up cable drive, in case the fly-by-wire becomes inoperative. Teaching the students of today how to rig airliners of the past gives these technicians an edge in finding a fix that may not pop up for yea-ea-ears.
Instead of allowing those twenty aircraft to decompose in the desert, I hope that American donates its MD-80 fleet to schools and airports. In the long run – like FedEx – it will be an investment in their future.

Aircraft Accidents and Diverting Attention

EASA has decided to change the medical requirements of pilots following the Germanwings 9525 accident; they have decided to strengthen the medical requirements for pilots. They are making their decisions based on the report by the French BEA, France’s version of the NTSB.
EASA is in a bad situation; they must act …. somehow. Unfortunately, the BEA’s accident investigation resembled a Three Stooges episode; the cause of their chaos was that the BEA kept the media happy, filtering everything through the press as it was uncovered. The media then amplified the confusion by allowing the readers to add to it.
The BEA displayed unprofessional behavior and endangered the integrity of the investigation by being so loose-lipped with the media. The first officer, Andreas Lubitz was tried in the papers and the internet. That is not to say that Lubitz did not sabotage the aircraft, but now we may never know for sure if he did crash the airliner or simply suffer a physical malady, e.g. a stroke, and was unable to open the door.
But let me play Devil’s Advocate here and suggest Lubitz became incapacitated from a stroke or went into encephalitic shock, now where do the BEA’s findings go? They invested enough time making him out to be a terrorist, they would look foolish to take it all back. In the United States this past year there were at least two inflight pilot fatalities as they flew regular domestic passenger airliners. What if they had died while the other pilot was in the bathroom? What if a cargo airliner pilot died while the other pilot was in the blue room? Don’t you think a 400,000 pound airliner running out of fuel before pancaking in midtown during morning rush hour might present a problem? In 1992 I assisted in repairing a 727 cargo plane where a bird burst through the radome and took out the captain, forcing the first officer to land the plane while the Second Officer (Lord knows we don’t have THEM anymore) assisted. Yes, that really happened.
If what I present holds water, then how do we solve the pilot problem? Certainly no psychanalysis would have saved the flight. No, the answer would be that because of 9/11, WE … HAVE … CREATED … ANOTHER … PROBLEM, and we did it by reacting in a Chicken Little manner. Now we must fix it: the pilots can’t get back into the cockpit in an emergency! You want to start analyzing pilots, then start analyzing mechanics or flight attendants or caterers, air traffic control, or anyone else who can have a negative effect on an airliner.
When authorities try to get ahead of an accident or control the outcome of the report, the aviation community suffers. Would Lubitz have acted in that way or would he have reacted like the first officer of Egypt Air 990, making his intentions crystal clear? I would be interested to know what a psychoanalyst would say about that. If Captain Shah meant for others to find Malaysia Air MH370, would he have left such an easy trail to follow or would he have used it as a diversion from his real plan?
So what of it? What difference does it make now? Consider the FAA’s knee-jerk reaction to the National Airlines accident in Afghanistan; without so much as a factual report, Washington headquarters moved to ‘fix’ the problem National Airlines ‘suffered’ from. If National Airlines did suffer a catastrophic failure in the aircraft, what good are all the ‘fixes’ the FAA put in place?
And why would doing this be bad? Because it diverts attention away from the real problem(s). Any time you pull resources away from discovering the awful truth, the chances of learning what really may have happened become near impossible. And then you stand a good chance the accident will happen again in the future.

Aircraft Accidents and Passing the Buck

In my first novel: Jet Blast, a character spoke about the ‘hot potato’, a term given to a particular event or evidence that is used by one party of an accident investigation to throw suspicion on another party.
Fifteen years ago this week I was in Murfreesboro, TN, interviewing the inspector for the repair station that conducted heavy maintenance on an airliner – a cargo DC-8 – that crashed; he verified the safe installation of a part that caused the accident. Unfortunately, all he had was his word with little evidence.
The airline’s Director of Quality Assurance (DQA) piled on this inspector with his opinions and accusations, saying that the repair station was the only entity that could have incorrectly installed the part. He was adamant and the investigators, which included my fellow NTSB investigator, believed him without question.
Several weeks later – on the morning of September 11, 2001, to be exact – I was in Dayton, OH, conducting interviews with the airline’s management concerning the accident. The DQA was present and I had the chance to interview him. He restated to me that the aircraft had arrived on an overnight cargo sort and that the time the aircraft was on the ground – two hours – was not enough to remove the part and replace it before the aircraft’s scheduled departure. The night that this occurred was November 25, 1999.
Now I’ve commented many times that the NTSB lacks the required expertise to know when one party to an accident investigation, e.g. the airline, is lying to them. This accident was an example of the NTSB’s naiveté in maintenance. The DQA felt confident that we would miss an important point and was not in a rush to help out.
It turned out that November 25, 1999, was Thanksgiving. Usually air cargo airlines, like the one I worked for, use holiday layovers to clean up maintenance. So I asked the DQA, “Did you fleet in on holidays?” His demeanor changed, suddenly wishing to berate me for asking such a ‘foolish question’. I replied, “Humor me. Did you fleet in on holidays, like Thanksgiving?” He begrudgingly answered that they did. “So,” I continued, “the window for conducting maintenance on November 25, 1999, wasn’t limited to two hours as you stated, but instead to twenty-six hours. This was more than enough to remove the part and re-install it incorrectly.” The chance that the airline’s people caused the accident suddenly increased exponentially.
In accident investigation, as demonstrated in my novel: Jet Blast, show that asking the right question is important. What’s more important, however, is to keep everyone: FAA, airline, union, manufacturer, etc., honest. And when they can’t be honest? The investigator has to be smart enough and experienced enough to know when to ask the right question.

Aircraft Accidents and Repair Stations

The FAA is under the microscope, yet again, as Congressmen who understand absolutely nothing about the aviation industry criticize them for their oversight … oversights. According to an article by US News and World Report’s Joan Lowy, an Oregon Democratic Congressman and a government watchdog group are disapproving of the FAA’s oversight of foreign repair stations (FRS), which is no surprise.
FRS service domestic airlines while they are covering foreign routes. Since the carbon footprint – not to mention the costs – of flying the aircraft back to the states for scheduled maintenance exceeds the costs of repairing the airliner overseas, the airlines enter agreements with these FRS to perform the scheduled maintenance. This annoys American maintenance unions to no end, but is one of the things airlines have to do to keep costs down.
The FAA has to warn these FRS before making spot inspections; this amounts to the FRS providing the FAA with a brighter picture of what may be happening. Also the FAA has to keep within a tight budget, allotting scarce budget money to these trips to foreign countries while also entertaining oversight over the United States’ 4030 domestic repair stations – and that’s not counting airlines, air taxis, general aviation, and other less important operators like air ambulances (yes, I’m being sarcastic). And then there is the big drain on FAA budgeting this year: Unmanned Aerial Systems rule writing.
I worked for an airline that employed several FRS; I used to take possession of an FRS-worked aircraft upon return to our hub following scheduled maintenance. On one instance the wrong flight control was installed – the part number was not even close and had to be replaced. In another instance the wiring from the cockpit to the wing was gone. Let me clarify; it wasn’t ‘damaged’ gone, it was ‘GONE’ gone, as in not there. The aircraft entered this maintenance with the wiring installed, but somehow the wiring was not there upon return.
This is a very … serious … issue! While Congress people play media politics, aircraft are not receiving proper surveillance. The legislators need to focus on the problem and not their image on the internet.