Aircraft Accidents and Misdirection, Part One

When Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, worked for his brother, Orion’s publication, The Hannibal Journal, he wrote light verse under the pseudonym, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab.  In one headline he described a shocking news story that never happened; the issue sold out due to this written sleight of hand.  Clemens used misdirection: a sort of promotion ploy that worked well in his case.

Two recent postings from the NTSB Chairman’s blog Message From the Chairman are particularly bothersome.  One dealt with an AVweb article about a 2016 balloon crash.  The second was American Airlines 383’s engine fire in Chicago.  In these cases, it’s obvious that misdirection should never be employed to exploit tragedy.  To do so only ramps up the emotions of those who don’t know better, those easily misled; meanwhile false hope is generated for victims’ families.

AVweb, on August 29, 2018, printed the Chairman’s Blog as an article concerning NTSB Accident Report AAR 17/03, an accident where a sightseeing balloon struck powerlines near Lockhart, Texas, and crashed on July 30, 2016.  The Chairman made an emotional plea for change in the article headline: NTSB Chair: “The FAA Should Act”, Member Sumwalt said, “Two years after the Lockhart tragedy, and nearly 10 months after we [the NTSB] issued this recommendation, we still haven’t received any indication that the FAA plans to require commercial pilot medical certificates.  The FAA should act.  The victims of this horrible accident and their families deserve nothing less and future balloon passengers deserve better.”  The purpose, as this writer perceives it, is for the NTSB to profit politically from shouting out to the ‘families’ and ‘victims’.  Nothing pulls at the emotional heartstrings like gesturing towards the victims’ families, while nothing confuses the issue more.

While at the NTSB, I met with victims’ family members from Emery 17 and Air Midwest 5481; each were eager to understand just what went wrong, what exactly we had found.  The last thing one should do is suggest that the NTSB has the ability to control what it cannot, e.g. the industry, the FAA or influence any transportation authorities the NTSB is involved with.  The NTSB cannot tell the FAA how to fix problems nor give them a deadline to meet; the NTSB lacks the experience and authority to do so.

Is Member Sumwalt trying to foster public outrage at the FAA, demanding immediate regulation changes for balloonists?  Well then, why shouldn’t the FAA “Act Now”?  Because, simply put, the FAA can’t.  The FAA moves at a pace to stay in front of the industry.  The recommendations the Chairman proposes are reactive; change occurs slowly to assure rash decisions are filtered out.  In addition, regulations, e.g. for unmanned aerial vehicles, and quality control work on NextGen systems are the safety priorities presently; the FAA’s available resources are being consumed by these vital programs.

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 61, section 61.23 (b) Operators not requiring a medical certificate, like all regulations, take years to change.  It takes, on average, three to five years and over three million dollars to change, even a word, in a regulation – not ten months.  The earliest the NTSB recommendation might be changed is 2022.  In addition, the rule change would include medical certificate (MC) requirements be changed for: student pilots, glider pilots, sport pilots, flight instructors and check airmen; each of these different pilot groups would be affected by these changes.

Besides, the Title 14 CFR 61.23 rewrite was not the FAA’s doing; it was rewritten the way it is by pilot groups, the same workgroup whose integrity is now under fire because of the balloon accident.  In August 1962, Title 14 CFRs listed MCs under Part 67; at that time, balloon (then called ‘lighter-than-air’) pilots were required to have a MC.  Between 1962 and 1997, MC requirements moved from Part 67 to Part 61.23.  Why were the MC requirements changed?  Between 1994 and 1997, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) successfully lobbied to have the rule changed to allow balloon pilots be exempt from MC requirements, even though balloons were/are passenger carrying aircraft.  It took four years, but EAA, with majority pilot support, got Title 14 CFR 61.23 changed to its present wording.

There is something else at issue here: the NTSB, indeed the Chairman, needs to be reminded of the NTSB’s purpose.  During this last week we have witnessed fact-finding events in the Senate gone amok, a spectacle that would make Jerry Springer jealous.  Senators from both sides of the aisle proved they are more concerned with personal career advancement than giving the American people what they want; what the Senators’ jobs dictate they do.  These circuses demonstrate the problem: the NTSB – like the Senate – has sunk into the same type of grandiose display of the ‘Look-At-Me’ mentality.

To clarify, NTSB Hearings, Sunshine meetings and all that spring from them are not political playgrounds; they are fact-finding events that support the NTSB’s Findings, Recommendations and Probable Cause … PERIOD.  NTSB inquiries are not designed for offering false hopes or giving substance to misinformed demands for change that is out of the NTSB’s control.  Instead, the Message From The Chairman blogs are saying to industry that the politically appointed NTSB Board Members don’t understand how the aviation regulatory process works and they are therefore ignorant of the regulatory processes for the other four disciplines: Highway, Rail, Marine and Pipeline.

In 2001, I was an NTSB technical specialist for aircraft maintenance.  During one Hearing, a Board Member said, “We’ve found cancer” in reference to an airline’s quality control system.  At a Sunshine Meeting, a former Chairman asked me, “Would you say that the airline has a lousy maintenance program?”  My response was, “I am not in a position to say,” so he took it upon himself to voice his opinion, on the record and for the two large video screens to either side of the Board Members’ table.  I did not refuse to comment out of humility; I didn’t comment because, even though I, personally, had spent months investigating the airline, I had seen only a snapshot of their maintenance organization.  With my years of experience, I was in a much better position to comment on the topic than the former Chairman.  It is just that I refused to.  And the inexperienced Board members should also refuse the temptation to make offhanded remarks because making offhanded remarks is not their jobs.

The NTSB Hearing and Sunshine Meeting are not court proceedings; there are no lawyers asking questions, just those persons who can answer to technical specialties.  The five Board Members are not transportation experts or litigators– they are Presidential Appointees – nothing more.  This is important to understand: the NTSB does not find guilt and has no authority to demand anything, much less that the FAA ‘Act Now’.  Instead, the NTSB’s task is to determine ‘Probable Cause’; Merriam-Webster defines ‘probable’ as “supported by evidence strong enough to establish presumption, but not proof”.  The NTSB then analyzes the facts that support recommendations that all five disciplines use to improve safety.  Again, recommendations, not instructions or demands.

I proudly served on NTSB Hearings and Sunshine Meetings, but it was easy to get caught up in the arrogance of the Board Members’ grandstanding, making inconsequential political points for the record full of ‘gotcha’ statements and lectures.  The NTSB Hearings and Sunshine Meetings have since descended further into a shadow of their original purpose, which is the promotion of safety.  Instead, the NTSB is relying heavily on sarcasm and table-banging as their purpose becomes confused.  As a result, the transportation industry suffers.

The Chairman is in a position to make positive change.  His attempts to tie emotion and agenda to common sense destroys all the benefits of the investigation’s factual findings, exploits the victims’ families and gives no closure to their suffering.  It just provides more misdirection.

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