Aircraft Accidents and False Alarms

One of the worst things about being in aviation for so many years is that the ridiculous movies Hollywood puts out are so … ridiculous – yeah, I know I overused that adjective.  When I look at a movie, I tend to look beyond the explosions and campiness; I go right for the technical, because if it doesn’t make sense, I can’t believe it.  I’m not talking about Star Wars or Star Trek having a problem with sound being carried through the vacuum of space; they’re science fiction movies and, well, there have to be some liberties.

Recently, I was sitting next to a Mom and her 8-year old son on a flight.  The son was going on about a scene in the movie, Charlie’s Angels (2000) – I feel Mom was going to have a long talk with Dad about letting their son watch Charlie’s Angels, but I digress.  The boy was worried that someone would open the plane door in flight and subject everyone to danger.  Having seen the movie – hey, look, my wife said I could, and I’m old enough – I knew the scene he was worried about.  With Mom’s permission, I dispelled the boy’s fears about such a thing happening as impossible.  Outside of the nonsense Hollywood puts out these days, e.g. Flight, Eraser, Airport 1975, 1977 and 1979, the Media loves to make sensationalism out of the prosaic; they really want the travel industry to worry about the most mundane things, aviation-wise.

But let’s look at the Charlie’s Angels’ inflight door opening scene – (If you haven’t seen the movie, please stop reading and come back three paragraphs from now).  A character grabs a passenger, opens the entry door in flight before jumping out, tumbling through the air.  Now, this movie’s believability is so low, it doesn’t even register on the Believe-O-Gauge, e.g. why don’t they pass out from the thin air, why don’t they hit the wing, why don’t they hit the engine?  This five second scene is so chock full of ‘you-gotta-be-kiddings’.

Okay, the first thing to understand with a high-altitude jet airliner is that most entry doors, over wing escape hatches and aft stair doors are designed as ‘plug’ doors.  That means the access is designed to be bigger than the hole, pulling in and out of the way; or the width/height of the door decreases via mechanisms while opening to fit through the hole and go outside.  When locked in place during flight, it is prevented from opening by a series of lockbars; it is also held in place by air pressure.

At altitude, the inside cabin pressure is kept well above the air pressure outside.  The pressure acting on the doors or escape hatches is in the hundreds of pounds per square inch range, so each square inch of the door has hundreds of pounds of pressure holding it against the door jamb.  Unless Clark Kent decided to slum it for the Daily Planet and tried to step out for some air, the door cannot be opened by John Q. Public.  The media, however, makes a lot out of stories where people try to open the door inflight, but there’s no likelihood of this happening.

To give an example of the enormous air pressure on the inside of a jet aircraft, think to the Aloha Airlines flight 243, B737 accident on April 28, 1988, where half the airliner’s crown separated from the aircraft in flight.  The weakened crown’s structure gave way to the interior air pressure acting on it, blowing it out and away like a balloon.

Another myth the media has forwarded has been that an airliner has been in considerable danger if one of the two pilots becomes incapacitated, e.g. succumbs to a seizure or dies.  FACT: each pilot has been trained, ad nauseum, on how to land the plane he/she is flying you to Grandma’s on, by themselves.  Indeed, the two pilots take turns ‘flying a leg’; they alternate from one flight to the next flight with who is at the controls, so the training is supplemented almost on a daily basis.  You, as a passenger, will never know whose leg your being flown on: Captain’s or First Officer’s.  If their co-pilot becomes incapacitated, the lone pilot may request a flight attendant to operate the radios or assist in running a checklist, but each pilot has it well under control.

Even some aviation circulars run articles about the humdrum; these are issues that come up in flight that don’t rise to the level of, “Oh, really?  Um, wow.”  For instance, ‘Airplane blows tire during landing’ or ‘Engine shut down in flight’; these can be concerns, but when brought to the level of national attention, it becomes trivial and therefore desensitizes the public’s awareness of what is important.

If an engine should be shut down in flight, this is more of an issue when the aircraft is over water.  Airlines, wishing to cut flights shorter and save money, have demanded that the manufacturers of both airframes and engines, increase the technology.  As a result, almost all twin-engine airliners are now Extended Twin-Engine Operated – aka ETOPs – qualified.  This qualification allows only airliners so equipped, the ability to fly hours from land and out over the water, thereby cutting routes by hours and fuel costs exponentially.  If an engine should cut out during an ETOPs flight, the aircraft technology is so advanced that the aircraft can make it to land on one engine.  So even for an ETOPs flight, an engine out is becoming news that is not so important.

A tire blowing out on landing is also not too upsetting.  Airliners today are equipped with anti-skid and more than one tire per landing gear.  If a tire blows out, the pilots, again, receive copious amounts of training in dealing with such occurrences.  The threat to the airplane is minimal.

When the media makes ‘mountains out of molehills’; makes a big deal about less important events, they make important events, insignificant.  Imagine if everything that happened on an airliner was national news; wouldn’t we become immune to the real dangers, e.g. smoke in the cockpit or cracked windshields?

So, what are important events, at least to my experience?  I can think of two that the flying public sees every day.  Turn off the electronic devices when the flight attendant says to.  Airliners today, even though they may be 2/3 the length of a football field, are susceptible to the smallest electronic device signals.  When I started working on digital systems, we were required to wear wristbands that run static electricity to ground.  If not, we could fry electronic equipment worth thousands of dollars in repairs.  So, the next time your Uncle Nunzio, the self-proclaimed electronics expert, says that the whole thing’s a bunch of cow patties because his friend at the barber shop said so, take it from me: it’s not a joke.

The second important event the flying public sees is the abuse of the Americans with Disabilities Act, namely the increase in numbers of ‘comfort’ animals.  Untrained animals, e.g. cats, turkeys (yes, turkeys), Shetland ponies, pigs, certain dogs, inside a hollow tube during an emergency is a recipe for disaster, injury and death on a grand scale.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to escape a smoke-filled cabin under the best of conditions, you are missing something.  Try adding an untrained animal freaking out because it hasn’t been trained in an emergency situation …

Those are two problems I feel are important.  Popping doors open, flat tires, etc. are important, but only in scripts.  As travelers flying in today’s world, we have more important things to get alarmed about.

Aircraft Accidents and the LM

An important anniversary this week: the 48th anniversary of the Apollo XI Moon landing.  It seemed that the early space missions were more personal in the 60s and 70s; the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights were to us what it must be like for today’s young people to see the furthest galaxies through the eyes of the Hubble or Spitzer telescopes.  Today, the ability to recover a space vehicle by landing it upright on an ocean platform was as alien a concept as Star Trek’s ability to ‘beam’ a person’s molecules from the transporter pad to a planet’s surface.  The space program of the 60s was unchartered territory; the engineers, astronauts and managers would improvise based on untapped ideas and unproven theories born of necessity; people worked together towards the common goal and as a group they shared the glory of hard earned success.

I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong descended the stairs of the Apollo XI Lunar Module (LM) and changed our lives forever.  I’d been planted for days in front of our black and white television, watching the hour-by-hour coverage by newscasters, e.g. Walter Cronkite, who followed each stage of all the Apollo missions.  Using models – the special effects of the 60s – Cronkite, et al, would exhibit as each stage of the Saturn V stage was ejected; as the Command Module maneuvered to dock with the LM, and, while showing great dexterity (by not dropping the models) demonstrated each docking and undocking procedure in amateurish, yet acceptable detail.  On July 21, 1969, with the TV’s rabbit ears correctly positioned, my family invaded the living room to witness the first step.  It was an ‘I-was-there’ moment.

In the last 48 years, the world sure has changed.  From the Apollo missions’ conclusion through Apollo/Soyuz and SkyLab, the focus had been on safety.  John Kennedy’s quote, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” was not so much a dream, but an order from the President.

The emphasis on safety became manifest when Apollo XI’s Edwin Aldrin accidentally broke a circuit breaker responsible for firing the LM’s ascent rocket.  Then, nine months later, when Apollo XIII’s mission became a desperate struggle for survival, the engineers, leaders and astronauts pooled their talents again to assure the successful return of our three astronauts to Earth; no matter what curve ball physics or undeveloped technology threw at them, they continuously rose to the occasion.  Always the sobering deaths of Apollo One astronauts, White, Chaffee and Grissom represented a stark reminder to follow President Kennedy’s order to return the astronauts safely to Earth.

And then came the inception of the Shuttle; safety changed from a way of doing business to a mission statement with the conviction of rhetoric.  After Apollo XVII, even though safety was still expected, it was taken for granted, becoming more like a notation, a reminder.  The Space Program had become invincible.  One could almost hear the Shuttle program’s management, in the voice of J. Bruce Ismay, pushing the shuttle program turn-around times beyond the line of safety.  Twenty-five times, launch after successful launch, created a false confidence of HMS Titanic proportions, until the shuttle vehicle Challenger (STS-51-L), exploded 73 seconds into its launch.

What changed from the unforeseen events of Apollo I, XI and XIII, to the preventable circumstances of the Challenger disaster?  Safety and management’s attitudes, their agendas.  Emphasis went from safety to savings; from responsibility to ingratiating; from mission to schedule.  While the Apollo mission successes relied on a team effort to solve problems together, the shuttle missions evolved in the world of agenda.

The best way I can describe an Agenda is as ‘safety in a vacuum’.

The management overseeing the Challenger launch were given the data, e.g. they knew about the overnight temperatures; possible freezing effects on the solid booster rockets’ O-rings; the time it would take to verify a safe launch.  However, they launched carelessly anyway.  Despite the need to maintain safety, they met the Agenda.

Seventeen years later, after being lulled into a false sense of renewed arrogance, the space shuttle Columbia’s management again chose tempting fate over a sure thing.  They saw the videos of the launch; witnessed the insulation hitting the shuttle’s underside; knew the risks of bringing Columbia home with its belly exposed.  The infamous decision was not based on facts, it was based on an Agenda.

It has been my experience that agendas can be found in government and industry.  They aren’t necessarily politic specific; the shuttle program’s management teams weren’t answering to a Conservative or Liberal Administration’s political influences (Challenger happened under Reagan and Columbia happened under Clinton).  Agendas aren’t established in facts, instead they are founded on personal opinion or belief.  They are a skewed impression of how things should be run, taught or organized.  Once accepted, an agenda is nearly impossible to reverse.

In my March 25th article, I wrote about a popular aviation blogger who found a 757 captain’s ‘de-icing’ procedures to be humorous and trend setting; I found them to be dangerous and foolish.  The pilot defied company policy and, using a broom, swept the wings of any icing, instead of waiting for proper deicing.  This demonstrates an agenda for the Captain’s own selfish reasons: to make himself shine.  I can assume the blogger is too young to remember Arrow Air flight 1285 (12/16/85) in Gander, Canada, resulting in 256 fatalities; or Air Florida flight 90 (1/13/82) in Washington, DC, resulting in 78 fatalities.  The purpose of accident investigation is to learn from past disastrous mistakes and prevent them in the future; both the 757 Captain and young blogger both do not learn from history.

In my teaching position, if one builds a course based on agenda, not only do the students miss the benefit of accurate information, they are led in a direction away from the true problem.  If an accident is misread due to inexperience, the ‘fix’ may never be implemented, resulting in a repeat event later on.  This denies the students an opportunity to learn truly valuable information centered on experience.

Agendas in management can result in a complete upset of the workforce.  There’s a desire of one or two to make themselves shine at the risk of others; this was evident in both the Challenger and the Columbia decisions, to ignore what was best for the program in order to further one’s position.  In the shuttle disasters, experience was trivialized in favor of doing the ‘right’ thing; the ‘right’ thing being open to interpretation.

Aviation and the space program were designed in days of black and white; of analog technology, cables and hard copies made of paper, filed in manila folders.  There is no discipline like there was when we launched men in untried steel compartments or made aircraft skin out of plywood.  And we didn’t get this far on the credit of a select few.  We need to get back to that mindset of safety over agenda.  Otherwise, we’ll never advance; we’ll be like Apollo XI’s LM descent stage: cold, abandoned and obsolete.

Aircraft Accidents and Unaccredited Schooling

Getting old is … interesting.  For the last thirty-five years the battleground has been who parks in the garage or turning off the lights; now, it’s who gets the bathroom first.  I can now boast that I have an increasing collection of different glasses in assorted frames, while ordering off the senior citizen menu at IHOP.  And then there’s the cardboard delicacy – Bran; no amount of margarine can make that – or margarine, for that matter – taste good.

However, one advantage with age is that it comes with experience.  Learning from life is a one-way journey; one that I would not retake, yet I’m glad for the opportunity.  For instance, during all those years of government work, I spent six ‘deep-inna-heart’ of Washington, DC: Federal Government Central.

Being a DC worker bee had a few perks (very few).  I think the one benefit was seeing first-hand, the eye-opening reality of politics and the deceptive turning-of-phrases.  I’m not speaking to the ‘toe-may-toe’ versus ‘toe-mah-toe’ type of mistaken inflection, conjugation or declension.  Instead I’m referring to the way politicians phrase regulation to do and say … absolutely nothing, yet look like they are leading the good fight.  The senior politicians do this while singing their own praises, convincing others that they are looking out for the Peoples’ best interests.  And they do it so convincingly; Hint: It’s the suits; party base-types dig the suits.

Incidentally, the media has no compunction on promoting such charades, all the while completely misunderstanding anything that is meant or the consequences they bring about.  It is sad that main stream media groups have become so misinformed and careless.  There was, however, a terrific article in a non-main stream media publication, Flying Magazine this week:

Other publications and news providers spoke to the same proposal of Senator John Thune of South Dakota to ease up on laws that are choking opportunities for future pilots to qualify for commercial service.  These main stream media outlets reported that Senator Thune wants to ‘loosen the Flight 3407 Safety Laws’ (the media’s choice of words, not mine) by proposing “to alter the rule that requires both pilots and copilots to have 1500 hours of flight experience before flying a commercial airliner.”  This is followed by the usual politician nonsense of pointing fingers while saying words like: “underhanded attempts”, “chip away at pilot training” and “an insult to the families …”.  The families of the victims of flight 3407 become innocent victims themselves by getting caught up in the media circus, which evolves into the most heinous of displays: using the families as a photo-op to push a politician’s and/or a political appointee’s agenda.

Colgan 3407 was a tragic accident – I will never debate the ramifications and mistakes made that led up to the disaster.  But reading through that accident report and other reports – as I do every month in my Lessons Unlearned series – one starts to see what political appointees do to deflect away from the problem with a quick fix that solves very little, if nothing.  They offer solutions in search of a problem.

I don’t say this lightly or make irresponsible chatter.  I’ve met many victims’ families in my career investigating accidents.  I take their pain very seriously and do my best, along with the other NTSB technical experts, to get it right.  It was a matter of professional pride bringing closure to the families’ losses, while pushing for important safety improvements, some of which, by the way, fell on deaf political ears.  One key point is that, although the Flight 3407 victims’ families challenge the changing of the law, the 1500-hour requirement was never an issue in the accident; both of the pilots exceeded 1500 hours of flight time experience.  The important issues that should have been raised had nothing to do with their experience; it had to do with their rest times, duty times and training.

How Senator Thune attempts to change the law is by changing the rule’s wording to include Unaccredited Flight Schooling, that it be included in the original 1500 flight-hour requirements.  Senators and Representatives fighting Senator Thune’s changes simply don’t understand the issue, much as less understand what the changes do or don’t do.  All they know is, there’s a photo op; and that’s not cynicism.

The one point of working with the NTSB for those years is that changes to rules are not without consequences.  If one were to recommend a rule that prevents the carrying of Plutonium-239 in an overhead baggage bin, there’s really no way to corrupt that language – just don’t carry radioactive materials in an overhead bin, period.  But when the NTSB recommends changing rules that cripple a specific workgroup or industry, the consequences can be devastating to everyone; and I mean, Everyone.

What is worse is when the recommendations are made blindly, without understanding of the problem.  When changes are made to ‘improve safety’, do they?  And if so, how does one substantiate that safety has been improved?   Moreover, when a politician doesn’t understand the problem, how does this politician validate data that doesn’t exist or is impossible to collect?  The solution becomes more of a problem and impossible to correct.

For decades, pilots have become professional pilots without ever having stepped inside a flying university.  This begs the question: what is meant by an accredited flight school and what is meant by an unaccredited flight school?  The reason I ask is because the media seems to be incensed about including unaccredited flight training (UFT) in their articles, as if it mattered.

The Dictionary defines Accredit as: to certify (a school, college, or the like) as meeting all formal official requirements of academic excellence, curriculum, facilities, etc.  Therefore, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) accredited flight school is one where the curriculum (class subject matter) is approved by the FAA to be taught at that school.  It stands to reason that UFT does not meet the academic requirements expected of an accredited flight school.

And this is where the deception comes in.

UFT schools would not meet the academic requirements because they are not academic schools.  They don’t need to be.  Flight hours are not accumulated in a classroom reading Shakespeare; one doesn’t gain better engine-out training by taking electives or a gym class; the Associates, Bachelors or Masters degrees they earn don’t guarantee a survivable gear-up landing.  Flight hours are the hours spent punching holes in the sky and upping ones aircraft handling experience level; learning to fly instruments or multi-engine.  Designated Pilot Examiners are FAA-certified examiners; they test the UFT student and credit their flight hours to the appropriate ratings they seek.  Whether you are raised on Long Island or the Louisiana bayou, flight training is available most everywhere; a UFT school provides this type of training.

Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certification is similar; an aircraft mechanic can get his/her A&P certificates at an accredited A&P school, through the military or by being an apprentice to an A&P certificated mechanic, aka unaccredited maintenance training.  This qualified mechanic, for a number of months, shows the apprentice how to work on aircraft by conducting on the job training.  He/she takes the required tests with a Designated Maintenance Examiner; he/she then demonstrates qualification by practical testing.

Politicians and political appointees intentionally misleading their constituents by emotionally agitating them to fight against, what amounts to be, a deception, is the true problem.  If we are suffering a pilot shortage in the near future, then more pilots-to-be must be given credit for the legitimate flight training they receive.  If we as a travelling public do not recognize that quarter must be given to genuine pilots with authentic experience, we will be looking at a drastic change in the way we travel.  In a few years, there will be limited business opportunities, a whole lot less places accessible by plane, less trips to Grandmas, and far less get-aways.  If that happens, it will take years, even decades, to fix what is a non-problem-turned-problem.  Airlines will go under, packages won’t be delivered and vacation spots will dry up.  And I think that would get old, real quick!

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned III: Human and Environmental Elements

This is my third addition to my Lessons Unlearned series.  I have been trying to aim at lessons unlearned from particular accidents; however, I feel it is important to look at the root of all accident investigation and ask the question: Are they being done correctly?

A young colleague recently asked me: Can the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) be audited?  I responded that auditing the NTSB would be hard.  For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) audits their individual departments; the findings are constructive when acted upon.  One can argue that self-auditing is counter-productive by design, but then who can better audit the FAA than itself through its other detached divisions?

The NTSB is different; they are accident investigators for the five transportation modes: Marine, Rail, Aviation, Highway and Pipeline.  The NTSB’s job is not to conduct surveillance, understand the daily occurrences or even track the transportation mode they are overseeing (because they don’t oversee anyone); they don’t track the goings on of industry or perform trend analysis based on root cause data.  If the Fire Department doesn’t track homeowners’ battery spending to verify home smoke detectors are operational, can anyone audit them for the preventable fires they put out?  How about Homicide Detectives; if they can’t track the drug traffic accurately, can they be audited for the unsolved drug related murders?

The NTSB serves a unique function in the transportation community; it is problematic to audit an entity that serves that kind of disconnected purpose.  Hard?  Yes, it would be difficult.  Unprecedented?  Probably so; and yet it would (and should) not be impossible.  Considering the NTSB’s odd influence over the entire transportation community, it is my opinion that it should be absolutely vital.  It’s confounding that if not previously proposed, the time is long overdue.  Consider this: all transportation modes have evolved with the times; computers have taken over all aspects of Rail, Aviation, Marine, etc. yet the NTSB doesn’t stay abreast of the latest technologies training; they’re not required to.  So, how does one bring the NTSB into the 21st century?

One way would be to compare its accident report history against its successes.  Has the NTSB changed the different transportation industries for the better?  Do the Probable Cause(s) and Recommendations address the contributing cause(s) of the accident as well as what caused the accident?  Are the NTSB’s Recommendations staying ahead of the transportation industry’s changes with technology?  Do they understand composites?  How about 3-D printing?

Here’s the problem: the NTSB has changed very little with the times since becoming an independent agency in 1967.  Over the last fifty years, all five transportation industries have strived to change with the times while the NTSB has remained unaltered, fixed in an LBJ-era mentality of how it does its job and who it hires: investigators that should understand the transportation industries.

To define the NTSB’s influence on the transportation community, let’s use billiards as an analogy.  After an accident, the cue stick represents the NTSB, while the cue ball serves as the transportation oversight agency, e.g. the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), etc.  The fifteen billiard balls would symbolize the respective operators, e.g. airlines, shipping firms, rail lines, etc.

The cue stick drives the cue ball in any direction it wants with as much (political) force it chooses.  Motivated, the cue ball directs the other billiard balls to orderly ricochet off the walls, bee-line into a specific pocket or put all of them into complete chaos.  This is the power and influence of the NTSB.  The irony is that the NTSB ultimately advises those agencies with far more experience, e g. FRA, FMC, FAA.  In other words, those who know how their respective industry works better than the NTSB could possibly grasp.

For this article’s purpose, the emphasis will be on aviation.  Any aircraft accident investigation relies on the integrity and experience of its investigator(s); at least it’s supposed to.  The NTSB employs mostly engineers as major investigators for the aircraft side of the investigation; they review everything from airline system safety to structural integrity to maintenance records.  They comb the wreckage looking at the effects the accident aircraft had upon the flight, the crew, passengers and cargo.  Engineers can pinpoint how an aircraft is supposed to perform, its limits and what improvements can do for the aircraft.

Engineers cannot, however, anticipate the human or environmental element.  Moreover, they cannot anticipate an operator’s culture.

Most major accidents aren’t a result of the aircraft’s design or its failure to meet that design.  The quality of the design is what the aircraft is repaired to: equal to or greater than.  The design is what the pilots are trained and fly the aircraft to.  Very rarely does a major aircraft accident occur due to the airplane NOT performing to design; it does happen, but not often.  ValuJet 592 crashed despite the fact the aircraft was mechanically sound, the crew properly trained.  Air Midwest 5481, was flown outside of its design parameters.  China Air 611 crashed, but not because of a faulty design, but because the operator failed in a minor inspection timetable.  US Air 1549 ended up in the Hudson, not from a poor design, but from environmental influences acting outside the design, namely a flock of birds that exceeded tested allowable bird ingestion limits.  American 1420, Pan Am 759, Delta 1141, Southwest 1248, Eastern 66 and many more were due to outside factors.

Engineers, like most NTSB investigators, aren’t part of the everyday operation of the airlines.  In some cases, they aren’t even employed by the airline, but are contractors.  Here are some things an engineer does not do for an airline: calculate weight and balance on a live flight; rivet a new structural member; swap out an engine; check baggage; fly the aircraft; change a main brake; swage a hydraulic line; perform a pre-flight inspection; or schedule an aircraft for maintenance.  So, the question is: If engineers have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of an airline, how can an engineer investigate why the operational failure within an airline caused an airliner to crash?

In addition, the NTSB engineers are investigators in charge of each NTSB investigatory group.  Having run one of these investigatory groups, it has been my experience that participants, e.g. the airframe manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, the unions, the contract maintenance provider; while assisting with the accident findings, are trying to assure their respective employers don’t have the ‘finger of blame’ pointed at them; it’s human nature – and good business – not to bear the fault of innocent lives lost.  While leading said investigatory groups, I had the advantage of knowing how each party ‘operated’; where their skeletons were hidden and how to find them.  In the end, the tricks played to sidetrack the investigation were not successful.  But the groups led by inexperienced engineers were not so successful; at least the NTSB investigator did not prevent any monkey business.  However, the FAA was there to prevent the games.

An airline’s culture is paramount when determining the cause of any accident; it would be irresponsible to ignore it.  The NTSB usually finds what brought down the airliner, but they [rarely] find the true cause(s) of the accident.  When they do, they defer to the obvious, e.g. pilot error, instead of the truly important cause.  It’s enough that industry buys into whatever they are selling, no questions are asked.  And if they do, the five Board Members – novices all – put their feet down, relying solely on the NTSB’s name.

Why do we investigate accidents?  To assure they don’t happen again; that the causes are addressed – properly.  Perhaps it is time to audit the NTSB.  It would be proactive of the transportation industries to affirm that the NTSB’s half century-old procedures work; that their B707-era, analog-instrument, aluminum-alloy structure Age practices of the 1960s work as well in a B787-era, digital-instrumentation, composite-structure Age of today.  I’d be surprised … very surprised … if they do.

Aircraft Accidents and July 4th

It was a hot September; I remember that.  I sat in the air conditioning of the all-purpose vehicle belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  The agent had inserted the CD with the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) recordings hurriedly put on disk by the manufacturer.  I was there to listen to and identify the alarms and warnings the B757 cockpit makes during normal operation and then, of course, when not operated normally.

It was the second run-through and I could plainly hear through the vehicle’s speakers, the noises coming from the passenger cabin-side of the closed cockpit door.  It’s hard to explain: the passengers’ will to live, their fight to regain control came so strong through the cockpit door, as if it was just outside the FBI vehicle’s windows.  Determined shouts, orders given by calm voices; a brave plan initiated with the words, “Let’s Roll!”  The terrorists in the back were overwhelmed immediately, easily; the once confused passengers/hostages had been replaced by Americans with a mission.  The terrorists’ whimpering cries for help were almost inaudible.  One could almost see the lead terrorist’s face, the desperation as he realized the cockpit door was meager resistance to the retribution about to be leveled against him with great vengeance.  Through their incompetence, he and his terrorist thugs had missed their opportunity.  They failed miserably.

September 11, 2001, was a tragic day in US history.  American Airlines’ flights 11 and 77; United Airlines’ flights 175 and 93; along with their passengers and crew, were taken over by terrorist/extremists and used against New York City’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC.  At the same time the passengers and remaining crew of flight 93 committed to an all-or-nothing attack on the terrorists in their aircraft, Firefighters, Police and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) ran toward the burning towers in NYC; and firefighters, police, EMTs, men and women of the military ran toward the fiery gaping hole in the Pentagon’s southwest wall.  Without concern for their own safety, these domestic and military heroes risked all to save who could be saved.

On this July 4th, as we do every year, we celebrate the bravery of our forefathers and their families to stand up to those who would rob them of their freedoms and rights, whether they were farmers or businessmen; whether they lived in New York or South Carolina.  How different was it onboard that doomed B757 over Pennsylvania when each passenger saw beside them, not a person of different race or creed, but a fellow American.  Each decided to deny the terrorists their prize and the many more lives that would be lost if they were not successful.  Those on flight 93 demonstrated the better parts of their nature.

And what of the firefighters, the police, the EMTs, the military representing each branch?   Did not each of them exhibit their devotion to the innocent American lives they were sworn to protect and defend; did they not prove that all lives matter?

Sixteen years later, my wife’s middle school students, who were not even born when 9/11 occurred, could not appreciate what kind of nation our country had been or had become in those tense hours, days, weeks, months.  But then, they have an excuse.  We, as a nation, don’t have the luxury of ignorance when we decide what we are becoming.

And, what have we become and why?  The media, whether leaning left or right, report nothing but divisive news all day.  We are given a choice: watch it and get aggravated; change the channel; or stow the social media while canceling any subscriptions we have.

Our military has become an entity that’s being ignored; our veterans who have earned our highest levels of respect and thanks, are forgotten for the most irresponsible reasons.

The police officers, those sworn to protect and serve, are stabbed, shot at, injured, killed, and turned into targets of lawsuits and ridicule by ignorant masses armed with cell phone cameras.  Firefighters and EMTs have become marked for attack at demonstrations and mob rallies, all for the crime of putting out fires, protecting private property and helping the injured.

And what of our political leaders, both Federal and Local?  They spend more time launching sarcastic, hateful rhetoric against their political enemies, than they do concerning themselves with the country’s direction and its citizens’ well-being.  They do nothing to discourage – indeed, in some cases, they encourage – the illegal activity aimed at our first responders: our police, firefighters, EMTs and military, who are abused, threatened and killed.  Private citizens are beaten and killed in foreign prisons without regard.  If one wants an argument for smaller government and term limits, turn on C-Span; does anyone want these bickering guys and gals writing laws without limitation?  How different are they than a sandbox full of five-year old toddlers, fighting over a toy?

I remember the months after 9/11; until I was assigned to American 587, the airliner that crashed in Belle Harbor, NY, in November 2001, I spent a lot of time at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA.  The weeks I spent in those sites were unforgettable; the experiences were humbling.  I’ve never felt as powerless to do anything, yet so grateful to help in any way I could.

In a field in Shanksville, PA, the gruesome job of recovering the victims’ remains was exact and slow.  The atmosphere was professional, committed; we were focused, patient, yet anxious to quickly do the right thing by the victims’ families.  The FBI led the way with an incredible attention to detail.  Each piece of evidence – and yes, there were many pieces of solid evidence – was carefully recorded and stored; the human remains were medically tested for identification.  Safety of all helpers was paramount, yet we put important tasks on hold at a moment’s notice, all work stopped, the workers vanishing from sight, to give respect to the families who came to see the accident site where their loved ones died.  The citizens of the neighboring towns could not do enough for us; they wanted to do their part to help.

At Ground Zero, the atmosphere was different; many of the victims were first responders; police, firefighters and EMTs, who had run towards the danger when the Towers were struck.  Those first responders not caught in the stairwells herded the civilians away from the falling towers, assuring as many innocents survived the raining debris.  NYC opened its hearts, businesses and wallets; they gave us anything we needed to get through the cold nights, from food to clothing. 

As the earth movers dug through the ruin of the Towers, we kept our eyes open for first responders and civilian victims killed in the collapse.  When a firefighter, police officer or EMT’s remains were discovered, all work stopped; the earth diggers moved back, everyone’s heads lowered, hats were removed and respective silence prevailed, as the fallen first responder’s brothers and sisters moved in with a stretcher to carry the hero off the field with honor.  Not a word was spoken as the body was lifted by his or her brothers and sisters and was solemnly removed to a waiting vehicle.  After a respective duration of time, the work began again with a renewed tenacity.

Even the time spent in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, sifting through Ground Zero’s debris for remains and personal effects, my team dedicated to being diligent in our searches, to bring closure to the families.  One would not believe the items we found and returned to their loved ones.  When I could I opened the day attending services by the Army Chaplain; I still have the Rosary he gave me, precious it is to me.

Every night – in my case, morning – citizens lined West Street holding signs thanking us for doing what we could.  The New York City area was my home; I was born in Manhattan, raised in Queens and Long Island; my father and uncle were NYC policemen; many of my family and high school friends were NYC police officers, firefighters and EMTs.  I never felt I could have done enough.

The atmosphere at the Pentagon was dangerous; it wasn’t perilous to the workers, but one could feel the tension of a large spring ready to let go.  The military folks I met expected any fight to be brought to them, indeed, they trained hard for it. For the terrorists to attack innocents left an anger and dedication to respond that was impossible to describe, difficult to measure; it was like electricity: treacherous and, as yet, untapped.  The only thing these men and women waited for was Permission.  

July 4th, like September 11th, is a day for remembering.  It’s a day to rededicate ourselves to a belief that what we have in America: our friends and family, are worth everything we have to give up for to keep safe and free.  I remember how each person I met was impacted by the senseless deaths from the 9/11/2001 ‘accidents’.  What I don’t understand is how we, as a people, have allowed ourselves to forget what we became that day – ONE.  I know I didn’t forget.

The heroes of Flight 93, the first responders at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they proved to all of us that our petty differences are not what’s important; in fact, our disparities are irrelevant.  It’s what joins us together as Americans, neighbors, citizens, workers, believers, teammates, spouses, children, clergy, that is important: fighting side-by-side with each other, for each other and to protect each other.  At least, they thought so.  Whether it’s 231 years later or sixteen, we should continue to push for what they believed in … together.