Aircraft Accidents and Routine Chaos

Complacency kills.  The line between flawless and chaos is often so fine it is invisible.  A routine procedure, accomplished thousands of times with no error, can quickly descend into irreversible turmoil, a place where no one can pull back the disastrous results.  There are hours, days and weeks for regret, along with an eternity of ‘what-ifs’.

A DC-10 needed to be moved from one gate to another section of the ramp, only fifteen gates away.  A normal routine that involved three mechanics: one mechanic (Brake Rider) rode the brakes in the cockpit, monitoring the auxiliary power unit (APU), communicating with the tower and applying the brakes should the towbar snap and leave the aircraft without controls; a second mechanic (Driver) who drives the pushback tug used to push and pull the aircraft; the third (Communicator) provides communication via headset, through a long umbilical mike cord that runs from the Communicator’s headset to the aircraft.

This is the penultimate moment, as the tug connects to the aircraft and everyone goes to their assigned stations; the moment when everyone can dismiss the complacency and be concerned with the possibilities.  However, this is so routine, it doesn’t even bear planning.  The Driver starts the tug’s engine; the Brake Rider calls the ground tower and the Communicator, upon being given the go ahead from the Brake Rider, signals the Driver to push. 

The aircraft was pushed back.  With the DC-10 on the taxi line, the Driver moved from one end of the tug to the other to pull the DC-10 to the other gate.  The Communicator stood on a platform on the aft end of the tug, the cord still running up to the aircraft.  Meanwhile, taxiing jets on a nearby taxiway; the DC-10’s APU running at high speed; the diesel tug chugging loudly – all these added generously to the noise pollution that would confound any verbal shouts between the Driver and the Communicator.  The Driver’s visibility, looking behind, was prevented by all but a small window of what could be seen looking back … should he look back at all.  Remember, it is routine.

As the Driver accelerated to an excessive speed, the DC-10 aircraft followed obediently; the pushback crew wanted to expedite the job and get back into the air-conditioned office.  With the tug and aircraft making good speed, the Communicator’s headset cord became tangled on the nose gear and tightened in a slight turn; the Communicator’s headset snapped and pulled the Communicator off the back of the tug.  Landing hard on his side, he rolled back towards the main gear.  He tried to shout, but the Driver could not hear; the cord was damaged and the Brake Rider could not hear.  Unable to get up from the ground, the Communicator could not avoid going under the wheels of the DC-10’s left main gear.  More than two hundred and forty thousand pounds of aircraft – 120 tons – ran over both legs.

For the Communicator, the world stopped; he passed out from shock.  The Driver, whose attention was forward, was oblivious; the Brake Rider stood by and enjoyed the ride; the radio had been normally silent.  The headset bounced ownerless behind the tug.

As the tug continued on, the warning came from the side as an observer witnessed the whole episode.  The observer flagged down the tug with arms waving, running at a good clip.  The tug stopped; the Driver’s world stopped.

As people moved to the Communicator’s motionless figure, laying on the tarmac, calls were made to the tower to stop traffic on that taxiway; to Maintenance Control for instruction and emergency services and silent prayers were offered to God for the fallen Communicator.  The world for all involved started to ooze slowly forward.

The Communicator laid unconscious in his own blood.  The basic weight of the aircraft was two hundred and forty thousand pounds – this, however, did not include the thousands of pounds of ramp fuel and several thousand pounds of ballast on the upper deck.  The left main gear’s outboard wheels had crushed the Communicator’s left leg from the thigh down and the right leg from the knee down.  Thankfully unconscious, the Communicator’s left thigh bone had been obliterated, crushed to quarter-sized pieces by the left gear’s outboard wheels.  The skin, muscle, ligaments and pant legs were shredded and unidentifiable from each other.  The femoral artery was severed and, for some reason, was pinched, not flowing freely.  The left foot and lower shin, also caught under the wheels, were flattened to a width of zero by the left gear’s inboard tires.  The right leg below the knee had disappeared under the tires; they emerged just as destroyed.

An instructor on the field teaching a class at the time, rushed over and administered a tourniquet to prevent the Communicator from bleeding out.  Time picked up, gradually caught up.  An ambulance arrived on the field, the Communicator was moved to the hospital and many surgeries … should he survive.

First thing, readers, these are not stupid mechanics; no one got what they deserved by being careless.  They were doing what they always did, perhaps in the way they always did it.  It was a routine.  It was every day stuff.  It was, however, complacency.

They were no more careless than the private pilot who, on his last moments on Earth, and after completing the ten-thousandth pre-flight on his single-engine aircraft, missed the red elevator lock out ‘REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT’ flags from the elevators before taking off and hitting the forest’s trees at the end of the runway without ever acquiring twenty feet of altitude.

They were no more careless than the mechanic who forgot to write up the gear pins in the maintenance log and released the aircraft for flight, only to have the flight complete an air turnback because they couldn’t retract all the gear.

They were no more careless than the Alaskan bush pilot who carried several hundred pounds of freight in his Piper without strapping it down; the plane managed to clear the runway’s point of no return, only to tear a path through the treetops at the runway’s end because the freight moved aft, causing the nose to point almost straight up before impact.  The pilot’s body was recovered in the Spring when the snows melted.

The rest of the airline’s mechanics, those who worked with the DC-10 pushback crew, were all affected by the incident.  People pushed airplanes back a little slower, for a little while, at least.  The Driver was forever affected, refusing to get behind the wheel of a tug for many years.  Management buzzed; front line supervisors were as deer in the headlights, while upper management, wanting rolling heads for what happened on their watch, assigned blame.

The Communicator survived.  He was a man with a work ethic, one who was not about to retire or be forced into languishing behind a desk.  Although he would not walk again, if he was to keep working, he would do what he could from a wheelchair.  He eventually – after rehab – worked putting engines back together in the Engine Shop.  It was not what he wanted, but his attitude was that a day above ground was better than one below, which he continues to enjoy to this day.

But complacency kills.  The victim may not be a person like Communicator who suffered from the consequences of letting their own guard down.  It may be a passenger on a flight gone bad; a pilot who rushed the preflight; a mechanic who was unaware the flaps were being extended; a flight attendant opening the entry door without disarming the slide.  Victims may be the result of a baggage loader not questioning the weight and balance load sheet or a gate agent pushed to expedite a flight.  Chaos is, just that: chaos; once started, it is difficult to stop.  But a good way to prevent chaos to begin with is to remember: complacency kills.

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