Aircraft Accidents and Drama

The following of accident investigations via documentaries and movies is turning into quite the business. For example, the movie, Miracle Landing, the 1990 movie based on the Aloha Air flight 243 accident, starring Wayne Rogers. Numerous books are written on a variety of accidents from TWA800 to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, complete with the author’s personal how and why he/she knows the real truth behind the event(s). And there are also documentaries, such as the Mayday (or Air Crash Investigations or Air Emergency) series, that tells the stories of accidents past with information based on real events. Sounds intriguing, don’t it? Actually, it’s a lot of drama with liberties taken on the facts.
How do I know? I worked some of those accidents portrayed in the series and even appeared in one episode called ‘Dead Weight’, show date April 30, 2008.
‘Dead Weight’ follows the events leading up to and through to the aftermath of the Air Midwest 5481 accident that occurred on January 8, 2003. I was asked by the producers to participate in March 2007; I was then flown down to Charlotte, NC, to be filmed.
When you are being filmed, you do not associate with the other people filming their scenes, so you don’t have any say in what goes into the script, accurate or not – kind of what happened with movies like Sully. In essence, you are coming into the middle of a narrative without any knowledge of what precedes or follows in the script that bears on what you are saying or have said. Let me give you an example: the ramp agent, or gate agent, that gives a skeptical, doubtful look when the pilot says they have no issues with the weight and balance; the actress makes a face that, to me, says she thinks there’s something wrong, but that she will defer to the pilots’ decision. If this were the case and the gate agent was privy to an unsafe flight condition before launch, she would have been held to a higher responsibility than just a shrug of the shoulders as suggested. I used to be a load master for a cargo airline; weight and balance is something every pilot – and every gate/ramp agent – takes very, very seriously.
But let’s go to the investigation itself. It is dramatized in the episode that the lead investigator was in absolute control of the investigation, almost to the point of micro-managing. The truth is that the Inspector-in-charge (IIC) has little to no sway with each individual investigator or their groups. Each party lead investigator (like me) was hired for their expertise and – though they may advise the IIC – they don’t check in with him/her for advice.
So the “Ah-ha” moment the IIC supposedly has about the cables was not even in her wheelhouse. To be truthful, the ball got rolling because the FAA found out – not the NTSB – that the cables had been rigged not long after the aircraft crashed, within a few hours, and certainly before the cables were extracted from the wreckage. In fact, that is why the cables were even looked at, a timely ‘discovery’ for my first part of the investigation.
It’s not like the FAA to demand credit and very much like the NTSB to take it. The point about the cables being mis-rigged was relayed to me as I travelled to Huntington, WV, to conduct on-site interviews with the maintenance folks and scour through the maintenance records, especially (now) of the cable rig and training. It was during these interviews that other, more irresponsible behavior was discovered that I relayed during the episode. These items were discovered, again, not just by me, but by my investigatory team members who brought their expertise with them.
A point I tried to make during my spot on the episode – a crucial issue – were the layers of unknown contractors conducting maintenance on the aircraft. This discovery was made weeks later when the operator confessed to the fact. It also turned out to be the most important finding of the maintenance issue because the mis-rigging of cables; the skipping of maintenance steps; and the confusion of job functions all came from that discovery of the contractors and their oversight.
So while the documentary tried to tell a story, some the facts of the accident were not communicated to the audience. It’s not a crime to tell fabrications in a story or even to tug at people’s heartstrings for dramatic effect. But I’ve communicated with enough aviation enthusiasts, whether at book signings or while teaching, to appreciate the fact you want to know the truth and not a line someone is selling you.

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