Aircraft Accidents, Rip van Winkle and Longevity

Rip van Winkle, the idle protagonist of Washington Irving’s short story of the same name, went to sleep against a tree and woke up some twenty years later. He was rewarded from his extended slumber with two realities: he missed twenty years of progress (he slept through the Revolutionary War) and his lack of awareness was viewed as senility when he claimed loyalty to King George III. What a conundrum.

Have you ever heard on the news about ‘length of government service’ of any individual, say, of Congress or Presidential candidates? Perhaps one government employee had thirty years of continuous government service in the Senate while another one had forty-five years. How does that work? Does political office make one wise? Do they become closer to their constituents without having to rub elbows with them? Or do they just adopt a ‘know-better’ attitude and plod on, ignorant of the world around them?

Government service can be a respectable career. Take the brave servicemen and women who protect our nation, their diligence and dedication are of the highest degree. They devote their careers to us; they constantly revise their skills, learning to counter the latest national threats, adapting to remain proactive. They are constantly challenging themselves to be prepared for what comes next, physically, emotionally and/or technically. They are a branch of government that serves as a lesson in progress and awareness. On the local level, firefighters, emergency responders and police do the same to remain consistent and up to date, to protect themselves and others under their watch.

However, not all public servants are such as these. As one enters political government service, one is often removed from their constituents, just as Rip’s nap separated him from his community. Public servants become ignorant during their time in office. To be effective, a public servant must revisit the culture that led to their office term, they must re-identify with the constituency. If not, they take the chance of becoming obsolete, pariahs. Thirty-five years of driving a computer – don’t forget, that would include several years of driving a typewriter – does not an expert make. However, in truth, the level of obsolescence would depend on the government job and the qualifications for that job.

How would a thirty-five-year veteran of the aviation safety agencies, fare?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the governmental agency dedicated to aviation, period. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the governmental agency dedicated to improving transportation safety by investigating transportation incidents and accidents. The thirty-five-year (1985) veteran of the FAA or NTSB may be administrative. As Napoleon Bonaparte – or was it Frederick the Great(?) – once stated, “An army marches on its stomach,” which spoke to the soldiers’ need for provisions. It could be restated that the FAA, “marches on its records.” Therefore, the oversight agency relies heavily upon the office staff – not aviation-experienced inspectors – but those who work in the background and have organizational skills. These people, who are too often overlooked, are the lifeline of the FAA. Thirty-five years of administrative duties is an honorable occupation, a worthy goal.

However, the mission of the FAA is not restricted to the office; their responsibilities extend to the field, a field that separates experience from ‘checking a box’. The FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI) must have experience from the industry to understand the industry. The ASI must know what he or she is saying and what he or she is looking for to be effective.

What if the FAA hired ASIs with no field experience, like Operations ASIs with nothing more than a private pilot’s license? What if FAA Airworthiness ASIs were newly graduated from an airframe and powerplant school, never having ‘turned a wrench’ or changed a tire? A thirty-five-year career with no previous experience would be pointless. Would a B777 captain benefit from an Operations ASI with no experience? What about the Airworthiness ASI who is a mechanic-in-certificate only? What if either one of these ASIs were responsible for developing training, making policy or writing regulations? What would these ASIs draw from to oversee the industry? Would they make aviation safer? Think of the retirement speech, “Thirty-five years of … YOU, not knowing what you were talking about! Yay!”

Fortunately, the FAA only hires industry-experienced ASIs to conduct oversight; these ASIs have a stake in the game they are involved in – aviation safety. Working closely with industry, the FAA ASI’s thirty-five years of experience would have evolved with the industry. Operations ASIs would have regularly interacted with pilots of all kinds; been familiar with a certificate holder’s equipment and were involved in their training, first-hand. Airworthiness and Avionics ASIs worked closely with the certificate holders’ approvals, on-site inspections, learning the equipment, first-hand. Yet being a thirty-five-year FAA ASI veteran, would not guarantee success, especially if the ASI did not consistently evolve at the pace the industry did. The diversity of the industry will always surprise – with devastating results – many ASIs who underestimate an industry too headstrong to be contained. The evidence can be found in numerous accident reports – only if one has the common sense to learn the Root Causes.

Thirty-five years ago, digital aircraft had barely dawned; composites were the up-and-coming technology; the industry, today, stands close to commercial space flight as a reality. Technology, in thirty-five years has been meteoric and it will not stop. Since 1985, the thirty-five-year FAA veteran has grown with the industry, learned and been challenged by the industry. It has been thirty-five years well spent.

What about the NTSB thirty-five-year veteran?

In 1985, a digital aircraft was the exception, not the norm. Stage III Noise Standards were still ten years away; structural inspections were beginning to extend older aircraft. From 1985 to the mid-90s, an NTSB investigator would not have experienced, e.g. advanced digital instrumentation, fly-by-wire, NextGen, composites, Full Authority Digital Engine Control, aka FADEC, horizontal stabilizer fuel tanks, heavy airliner two-man cockpits, and the expansion of both International and Domestic Repair Stations. And the NTSB investigator never would. NTSB investigators never directly engage with industry.

Would the average NTSB aircraft-specific investigator (Systems, Engines, Maintenance and Structures) be familiar with the wear-and-tear of the average aircraft? That would depend: is the NTSB aircraft-specific major accident investigator an engineer or a maintenance technician? A technician would have worked the entire aircraft throughout his career; he would have worked different aircraft models and understood airline culture. An engineer would have designed one minuscule part of an aircraft.

Would engineers who designed Water/Waste systems understand Pneumatic overtemperature sensors? Can communications engineers comprehend Wing Anti-ice systems? How would an engineer who designed engine generators understand fuel-driven variable stator vanes? How many NTSB aircraft-specific major accident investigators are engineers? According to the NTSB’s Human Resources department: all aircraft-specific major accident investigators investigating any air carrier accidents are engineers. They have no career knowledge/experience about the industry or the aircraft they investigate.

The FAA has no engineer ASIs; no FAA engineers conduct industry oversight where Maintenance is a crucial issue. Why wouldn’t the NTSB have experienced maintenance technician accident investigators? Why does the NTSB rely on inexperienced engineers who have never known troubleshooting, maintenance cultures, training, or aging aircraft? NTSB engineers have been sheltered from the industry’s technological progresses for decades. Who in the NTSB was qualified with the technological knowledge to understand the B737-MAX avionics issues? National Air Cargo 102’s floor failure? Emery 17’s maintenance culture? Air Midwest 5481’s multiple procedural and regulatory errors? The numerous other accidents where maintenance and technology played a major role? With inexperienced engineers as investigatory group leads, can the NTSB successfully investigate any major accident?

Rip van Winkle was a short story with a clear message: if you separate yourself from your surroundings, you hobble your effectiveness; the world goes on without you; you become – obsolete. The good news was that Mister Winkle had experienced life with memories; he soon saw what his nap had done to him upon waking. What if good ol’ Rip had never had the experiences of a life to begin with? Then he would have been better off staying asleep on the mountain. He would have had nothing to contribute.

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