Aircraft Accidents and Misguided Fans

In the late seventies, my good friend Rose and I used to drive twenty minutes out to JFK airport; we’d park in long term and make our way to the Pan Am Terminal’s Observation deck.  There we’d watch the new DC-10s, L-1011s and 747s land and take-off.  I always loved aviation; I couldn’t get enough, going through rolls of 110 film for my Kodak Pocket camera, trying to get that perfect shot, spending my paycheck to develop the pictures.

Aviation does that; it gets under your skin.  Much like a Roadie following his/her favorite band or a surfer catching the perfect curl, one can’t escape being a fan.  When I started fixing airliners, it still made me catch my breath, realizing I got to work on this aeronautical behemoth.  Each night in Omaha’s Eppley Airfield airport, when the ramp crew retired inside the cargo building, I’d wait outside to watch the B727 take off and turn toward Memphis.  There are thousands of aviation fans like myself; some are fortunate to fly, repair or control airplanes, while others must settle for pictures or stories; I see their captivating pictures all the time on social media.

But then there are those who take the ‘love’ too far.  They don’t intentionally cross the line; they just want to share something, e.g. pictures or information that they feel makes them look accessible to important aviation stuff.  However, ignorance is not an excuse for being a misguided fan.

Last week on Twitter, I saw a commercial pilot (of all people who should know better) posted a snapshot of an airliner’s maintenance logbook.  He wanted to give his followers something to connect with him on; an understandable, but foolish thought.  I was more surprised that people who should also know better, retweeted the image and shared it with everyone.  In today’s highly visual media, it is hard to control what ends up on Facebook or Twitter, but sharing this type of maintenance (MX) document is so very wrong.

First off, maintenance logbooks are proprietary; they belong to the operator of that aircraft, whether it’s an airline or someone’s personal Cessna 150.  The information is important only to that operator.  Think of it as sharing someone else’s electric bill or mechanic’s repair estimate with the world.  Some information on the MX page can tell, e.g. engine or airframe vital information, repairs made and how they were referenced, again: proprietary.  Then there’s some personal information that it contains.

For several years, airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificate numbers (used with the mechanic’s signature to release an aircraft) were the mechanic’s social security number (SSN); mine was one; they were used in the days before digital technology turned SSNs into identity theft problems.  When the FAA changed the system, I was given a new A&P number, but only when I requested it; some people have never swapped over.  Even those who don’t have their SSN as an A&P number are susceptible to hacking or identity theft.  Government branches, e.g. the FAA can (and have been) hacked; China did just that kind of hacking a few years ago.  Personal information can be traced backwards through government records, using either a pilot’s or mechanic’s certificate information to acquire their SSNs.  So, posting this information on Twitter opens several innocent people up to identity theft.

Also, the logbook holds information that can be misunderstood.  In 1995, I worked on B727 aircraft in Omaha’s Eppley Airfield (OMA).  In the ‘old days’, the same B727 engine was used on DC-9s and earlier B737 models; they had a habit of ‘bleeding’ oil all over the lower engine cowl; it looked like caramel spattered on the white lower cowl; it was normal; indeed, it was expected.  One day, a new FAA Operations General Aviation Inspector doing ramp surveillance was aghast at the oil stains; she was unfamiliar with the B727’s quirks.  She went to write up our aircraft for repair … that is until her co-inspector talked her down again and led her to understand the nature of the ‘bleeding’ engine.

Mechanics and pilots often make entries in logbooks; the language is normal, innocuous, using aviation terms either party wouldn’t think twice about.  A passenger reading these entries, however, would be confused, if not scared, unless they realized how harmless the entries are.    Terms like ‘hot brakes’, ‘hung starts’ or even items deactivated per the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) paint a different kind of picture to the inexperienced, just like the previously mentioned new FAA inspector’s obsession with ‘bleeding’ oil.  Even items deferred per the MEL can be confusing, e.g. an airliner can fly revenue flights while mechanics troubleshoot a broken system over a matter of days; this is normal.  For instance, an entry: “Inboard anti-skid system, replaced #3 brake anti-skid transducer – no help.  Item remains deferred on MEL 32-##.”  The average passenger might think, “Hey, don’t we need that anti-skid transducer-ee-thingy?  What if we slide off the runway and explode like in those super realistic Die Hard movies?”

Truthfully, yes, it’s good to have all your anti-skid transducer-ee-thingies.  But, the aircraft manufacturer has provided maintenance procedures that allow systems, like anti-skid, to be deactivated while operating the aircraft safely, without threat to anyone’s health or well-being.

However, the average person reading this line in a MX log on a Twitter post will have a different view: that planes are being flown while broken.  “Oh my!”  “Warning Will Robinson!”  The truth is, the aircraft is just as safe; the pilots have received ample training and the mechanics are on top of the deferral.  Yet, I’ve watched people witness normal maintenance, e.g. strut servicing, from the terminal window, then refuse to fly on that ‘unsafe aircraft’.  Countless times inexperienced people have reported unsafe activities by airlines that amount to nothing beyond a misperception.

So, what do these scared social media people do?  They forward Twitter or Facebook postings to the local news station or their Congressman, two entities with less aviation knowledge than even the Twitter follower has.  The local news station has their ‘aviation experts’, alias travel reporters or uncertificated airline people; those who know just enough to be dangerous; then they go on the news station to give their ‘expert hearsay advice’.  If you don’t think this happens, let me refer you to Germanwings 9525 and Malaysian Air MH370, two disasters that were played out on every major news station around the world for months, with contradictory ‘expert input’ from people who knew next to nothing about human behavior or aviation, and even less about accident investigation.  This, however, didn’t stop them from filling the travel industry with fear while inflating their egos and wallets.

So, we discussed proprietary information, personal information and misinterpretation, but let’s look at why posting airline log pages on social media is so very wrong.  When an aircraft accident occurs, the first thing the airline must do is lock up all information pertaining to that aircraft; they have no choice in this; nobody, even within the airline, is given access to those records without the NTSB’s or FAA’s consent.  This is done to prevent important information – such as MX log pages – from getting into the hands of media outlets and the inexperienced, e.g. Twitter and Facebook followers, those who can (and will) muddy the accident investigation.  If accident investigations are corrupted, the findings and fixes will be ineffective, even if the MX log page was posted days or weeks before. This results in the accident happening again because the problem wasn’t discovered the first time.

On November 2001, just two months after 9/11, American Airlines 587, an Airbus A300, crashed in Belle Harbor, New York.  When the investigation focused on a device called the yaw damper actuator, a device that assists the pilot during cruise, it was noted that the flight was delayed from the gate after a mechanic was called out to look at a yaw damper indication light.

Let me be unquestionably clear: this yaw damper light had absolutely nothing to do with the accident; it was a coincidence.  However, if the log page had been made public knowledge in those first few days, the direction of the investigation would have been misdirected for days, possibly weeks, while investigators chased phantom problems.  Fortunately, the Systems Investigation group put an end to the misdirection right away, with no more than a whisper and the investigation proceeded undisturbed.  This is one example of how conspiracy theories can begin, from misinformation that would play out in the media.  Many other accident investigations have not been as successful stemming the tide.

TWA flight 800 was mired in missile theories or structural inconsistencies; that investigation played out for years in the media as theory after theory was debunked; all the while, attention towards the true cause was put off for months.  Malaysian Air MH370 played out in the media for months with ‘aviation expert’ terrorist theories, all the while the trail got colder and colder, finally disappearing beneath the waves.  I don’t need to go on; the media has hampered aviation safety for years and the travelling public will suffer for the interruptions.

I understand what it means to be an aviation fan; guilty as charged since the early 60s.  But, you in social media who are abusing what you have access to are hurting the industry you claim to love far more than any accident, by being irresponsible you gum up the safe movement of aircraft; you do this by trying to be popular, all the while hindering safety.  Consider this: just because one could do a thing (posting MX logs), doesn’t necessarily mean one should do a thing.

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