Aircraft Accidents and A Lotta Red

A Storm to Starboard

About fifteen years ago I took part in an audit of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office in Memphis; I was required to enroute, that is conduct surveillance of the flight crew in the cockpit. That particular flight, the pilots’ weather radar digital display revealed a storm hundreds of miles across and thousands of feet high – directly in our path; the radar sweep was candy apple red; an intimidating wall of energy. The flight through the storm was … memorable; I, being Airworthiness (not a pilot), observed as the pilots made their maneuvers look easy. Upon arrival in Memphis, I caught up with my audit lead – a former 737 driver – in the hotel shuttle; he had just flown through the same wall of energy. He stared at the floor, shaking his head and muttering, “Man, that was a lotta Red.”

Flying in the cabin is dull; we do not realize that piloting can be hours of routine sprinkled with moments of heart-pounding aerobatics. The cabin is so routine because we trust the flight crew; they do the incredible, e.g., landing on the Hudson or limping in after an engine fails dramatically, because they successfully combine experience with training – – experience and training – – without which lives would be destroyed. Think about that: both experience and training save lives.

As we find ourselves crawling out from our pre-COVID-19 bunkers, squinting in the sunlight looking for a return to normalcy, it feels like we make so little progress. The reality we are not facing is that the future has a ‘whole lotta red’ in it. Update: Texas and Mississippi lifted state-wide mask orders; their states are open for the summer tourist season. The International Air Transport Association – IATA – said the January 2021 air cargo needs have risen to pre-COVID levels. Endeavour Airlines will hire 450 pilots. Major airlines are pulling their A320 and B737 aircraft out of storage; repair stations are hiring for increased customer contracts. These recent changes show that the COVID scare may finally be in our rearview mirror. Why, then, are we being asked to keep the act up until the Fourth of July? When does it end? Where are the experienced leaders? Where are those with macroeconomics training and common sense? When is enough – enough?

How much of a toll has the Wuhan Virus, aka COVID-19 pandemic, taken had on safety in aviation? One might say, “We kept our six-foot distance; wore our masks; donned our face shields; loaded the plane, tail to nose.” Then, we sat less than two feet from each other, stuffed into a narrow metal tube pumping recycled air, all while breathing through a mask with the airborne pathogen protection integrity of a spaghetti strainer. Has anyone asked what type of mask blocks airborne viruses? I know, because we used those masks in Shanksville, PA in 2001. QUESTION: Why not ban emotional support animals? They breathe, don’t they; expel microorganisms, pass on disease, like humans do? Has anyone looked into this? Excuse the cynicism, but it seems Rover has more rights than Grandma.

But I digress; that type of aviation safety is not the point of this article. Has aviation’s quality of safety suffered since the Wuhan Virus pandemic began? Have certificate holders been paying attention? Pilots, mechanics, gate agents and air traffic controllers are mask-to-mask every day, while upper echelons have meetings that resemble some form of Orwellian Brady Bunch opening credits; everyone in their own box on the screen; ‘Jan’ is asleep; ‘Greg’ surfs the net, while ‘Bobby’ chats with ‘Cindy’ on Sametime. Result: Intracompany disconnects; important choices made from the antiseptic safety of home? When I was a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator, an FAA inspector or auditing for my former air carrier, any given day safety came into question: missed steps in a maintenance procedure; fuel leaks from an inboard flap track; weight and balance problems. Everyday safety errors demanded on-site observation and attention. Can Zoom meetings maintain that level of safety?

What about FAA surveillance, external and internal audits, have they decreased? The FAA and its certificate holders; do they communicate? Are safety complainant interviews reduced to blind telecoms? Have FAA inspectors conducted on-site safety inspections or are they trusting the inspected? Oversight visits mean: ‘OBSERVE’ the operator at work; ‘SEE’ safety problems; ‘HEAR’ what does not sound right; ‘TALK’ to people about safety concerns. Experienced observation; using one’s Training; conduct face-to-face interviews that are spontaneous, not scripted. These are vital to safety.

Much of the country is still hiding from the Wuhan Virus a year later. We are expected to, “Put trust and faith in government.” Put ‘trust and faith’ for aviation’s future – in the hands of politicians? Have these politicians or medical experts ever provided decisive answers for Wuhan Virus problems, beyond the Blame Game? FACT: the Wuhan Virus, aka COVID-19, crisis did exist. We lost many Americans, some to the misfortunes of health, but too many to the Political Incompetence of some leaders.

The Fatality Rate (FR) for each year, is it accurate; exactly what are the rates? First, reported Wuhan Virus FRs are unreliable. Why? Because news sources are skewed. There is no NEWS anymore; the news is mostly opinion and little fact. How do Wuhan Virus FRs compare to past Flu and Pneumonia (F&P) FRs when new F&P strains tore through our country every year, including 2019 to 2021? The Center of Disease Control (CDC) recorded those annual fatality rates. Between 2008 to 2015, the CDC’s website said: 2008-2009: FR 130,353 – – 2009-2010: FR 133,142 – – 2010-2011: FR 138,055 – – 2011-2012: FR 126,842 – – 2012-2013: FR 142,633 – – 2013-2014: FR 130,578 – – 2014-2015: FR 139,819. In March 2021, the CDC website disclosed the total United States’ Wuhan Virus FR: 524,695 deaths.

There is a stark difference between the 2008-2015 FR average of 134,488 deaths and the 2019-2021 Wuhan Virus FR of 524,695. The American people learned that the CDC’s Wuhan Virus FR is almost FOUR TIMES higher than 2008-2015 F&P Season’s FR average. But these numbers are deceptive. Why? Let us break the numbers down:

  1. The CDC’s 2021 Wuhan Virus FR of 524,695 includes those who died from the annual strain of F&P for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons. The FRs for the F&P seasons from 2008 to 2015 did not include victims from the Wuhan Virus.
  2. The Wuhan Virus FR still includes those who died because the Wuhan Virus worsened their pre-existing conditions. These people would have survived if not for the Wuhan Virus’s influence.
  3. The 2008 to 2015 F&P FRs occurred only between November and May of each year pair. The Wuhan Virus FR has been recording since January 2020 – that is six months more. The Wuhan Virus FR count has been for eighteen months – not seven months.
  4. Every F&P season prior to the Wuhan Virus, a Flu shot was available. This vaccination reduced the FR each year. Even with the Wuhan vaccine now being available, trust of the vaccine among physicians is not equal.

The seven F&P seasons, from 2008-2015, occurred between November and May. Per the CDC, the monthly average from all seven F&P seasons, 2008-2015, was 22,415 fatalities – per season – for each month. The Wuhan Virus crisis took place during two … separate … annual F&P seasons: November 2019 to May 2020 and November 2020 to March 2021. Therefore, two annual F&P seasons claimed 313,810 fatalities from just annual F&P seasons – NOT INCLUDING Wuhan Virus victims. If we subtract the combined 2019 through 2021 F&P FRs of 313,810 from 524,695 Wuhan Virus victims, 210,885 persons died strictly from the Wuhan Virus. The average monthly Wuhan Virus FR is 12,405, as compared to the 22,415 monthly FR for the 2008-2015 F&P seasons.

Perspective: The average monthly Flu and Pneumonia fatality rate was 10,010 deaths higher than the Wuhan Virus FR, even with the seven extra months; an average of more than two hundred people – per state – died from Flu and Pneumonia than the Wuhan Virus. How many people did not take the annual Flu shot because of the Wuhan Virus? How many people died because of this? This, in no way, trivializes the Wuhan Virus victims. Instead, it demonstrates that the Wuhan Virus FR may have been exaggerated – or – bureaucrats and medical experts did not understand the numbers. Furthermore, misrepresenting FRs has damaged the nation, irrevocably. Is it possible we were victims of a scam panic that crippled our economies, families, individual successes and the entire aviation industry? How do we recover? Will we make headway as taxes rise; fuel costs soar and employment opportunities plummet?

Imagine if we had a media that was honest; told the American people the truth; made it possible for us to succeed among the ignorance. Instead, professional medical experts were like a skip in the record; they bounced from ‘wear masks’ to ‘masks – bad’. Political professionals scared us, turned us against anyone who wanted to live normally. They sounded foolish, even as they knew they sounded foolish, even as we knew they sounded foolish. Remember: “Professionals built the Titanic; amateurs built the Ark.”

My wife and I were in a restaurant in Toledo last June. An old woman came in, remarking sarcastically, “Well, it seems people are not even considerate enough to wear a mask.” To which a much older gentleman sitting across from me replied, “You’re welcome to go home and hide in your basement with your mask on.”

How will history remember us? Will it say, “We did the right thing.” or “We were like sheep to the slaughter?” I tend to think the latter. We all know someone who died of Wuhan Virus, just like we know those who died from the Flu and Pneumonia. If I could ask any victim of the Wuhan Virus a question, it would be this: “What you were forced to give up at the end, your family, spouses, last vacations, holidays, a chance to make memories; the few days you lived without any loved ones near; if you could do it again, would you do it differently?” My guess is they would say, “Yes.” And they would see a whole lotta red.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XLVII: Wingfoot Air Express

The Type FD Dirigible: Wingfoot Air Express

On July 21, 1919, an American airship, a Type FD Dirigible, owned by Goodyear Tire Company, called the Wingfoot Air Express, caught fire and crashed onto the Illinois Trust and Savings Building. The Hydrogen-filled dirigible was transporting passengers from Grant Park to the White City Amusement Park when the tragedy occurred. Did Goodyear not understand the dangers of using Hydrogen? Were there no other options?

Information about the accident – and many others – at the time, was scarce; there were mostly newspaper and radio reports. Some information was gathered by witnesses and survivors, who had parachuted from the Wingfoot Air Express’s gondola. Any one old enough to remember, let alone participate in any investigation into the Wingfoot Air Express, has since passed away. The only particulars of the event can be summarized as: over the city, the airship suffered a fire near the stern and within seconds the blimp was consumed in flames. The airship buckled at the midpoint, folded and fell from the sky. It was unclear what caused the airship to initially catch fire, but the lifting gas used: Hydrogen, was highly flammable.

Ever since Henry Giffard’s steam-powered airship took flight in 1852, man had moved forward in gaining flight capability; these lighter-than-air blimps (balloons) employed a screw or similar thrust device. The obstructions to success were the inability to steer or control altitude; there was little thought given to the lifting – or buoyant – gas used. In 1884, the La France became the first controllable airship when it returned, through flight, to its starting point. The La France employed a rudder, an elevator, a sliding weight to assist in center of gravity shifts and ballonets, ‘balloons-within-balloons’ that were filled with unbuoyant gas to displace the buoyant gas in the main balloons, envelopes or bags. The use of these devices gave the La France the distinction of being the first Dirigible, a title that comes from the French word diriger, which means “to direct or steer.” The La France also used Hydrogen as a lifting gas; the experiment worked and that was all that mattered. Safety was a blind spot and it prevented one from succeeding. Using Hydrogen suggested airship developers employed a ‘fingers-crossed’ approach.

The Wingfoot Air Express accident’s Root Cause was the use of Hydrogen for buoyancy. Giffard’s airship employed Hydrogen, as did the La France, but neither caught fire nor crashed. The focus in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the successful ability to fly, perhaps by any means possible.

Consider also that at the time of the Wingfoot Air Express accident there were no aviation regulations or policies; the aviation ‘industry’ would soon be placed under the Department of Commerce. Common sense was not referred to because aviation was still in its infancy. Any accident event details relayed between countries that experienced airship accidents were limited by available communications at the time, distance and nations at war. Even information about these events remained elusive due to the lack of attention they received; controlled flight in the 1800s was an eccentricity.

Was it not known Hydrogen was highly combustible? After all, the three requirements for combustion are (and were) Oxygen, fuel and an ignition source. Would not common sense point out that Hydrogen was a volatile fuel, if used in close proximity to an ignition source? Yes, but the driving force at the time was being the first to master flight; the other guy’s mishap was the other guy’s fault. Competitors attempting to master flight with Hydrogen were like politicians reattempting Socialism: an idea that did not work last time because the other guy did not do it right. A bad idea is still a bad idea.

Common sense did come into play … eventually. One airship tragedy that generated common sense solutions was the Roma, an Italian-made semi-rigid airship, which crashed on February 21, 1922 in Norfolk, Virginia. The Roma was purchased by the United States (US) Army in 1921. Its accident was not the result of the Hydrogen-filled envelopes, instead the rudder system failed, crippling the airship’s maneuverability. However, before it struck the ground, the airship brushed against high voltage power lines; the sparks ignited the Hydrogen-filled envelopes. The Roma became the last US military airship ever inflated with Hydrogen; all subsequent military airships used Helium.

Yet, Hydrogen continued to play a tragic part in airship accidents. The French Navy’s Dixmude (formerly the Zeppelin LZ 114) exploded in mid-air near Sicily after a lightning strike on December 21, 1923. On October 5, 1930, the British airship R101 crashed, then burned, from what was believed to be escaped Hydrogen that ignited. The most infamous Hydrogen-caused Zeppelin accident was the LZ 129 Hindenburg, which burned near its mooring tower in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.

The use of Hydrogen as a lifting gas for airships was used predominantly from the 1800s up until the Hindenburg disaster. During World War One (WWI) (1914 – 1918), fighter pilots understood Hydrogen’s volatility. Fighter aircraft, e.g., the Nieuport 17, were equipped with outer wing strut mounted rocket tubes; the electrically triggered rockets were designed to ‘shoot down’ enemy observation balloons and airships using Hydrogen.

Per records, of the thirty-two non-military blimp disasters, eleven were attributed to Hydrogen explosions before the Wingfoot Air Express and another eleven dirigible accidents from the Wingfoot Air Express, up to, and including, the Hindenburg in 1937. By comparison, the other airship accidents were blamed on weather, fueling accidents or other reasons. Yet, Hydrogen’s use was still widespread. Why? From Giffard’s airship through the end of WWI, Hydrogen was the only buoyant gas available, even for military applications.

The only discovered substitute for Hydrogen was Helium, an inert gas that – per the dictionary – “… is not chemically reactive,” meaning it would not explode if introduced to an ignition source. Per the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the presence of Helium was discovered in 1895 from uranium and thorium ores. In the early 1900s, “… helium was found to exist in rather large quantities in the natural gas wells of the midcontinental United States.” Upon entering WWI, the US opened three helium extraction plants in Texas: two in Fort Worth and one in Petrolia.

Helium was expensive to produce. In 1919, investments permitted the large-scale production of Helium; major production was limited to the US and Canada, allowing the Helium supply to become political. It was believed that countries, such as Germany, who were undergoing political upheavals with the rise of the Third Reich, were denied access to the US’s helium. If this were true, it helps explain why a country as advanced in zeppelin technologies as Germany was, still relied on Hydrogen as a buoyant gas, even in commercial usage – eighteen years after events like the Wingfoot Air Express accident.

The reasons Hydrogen was used as a buoyant gas, despite its dangers, has been discussed here: Hydrogen was the only buoyant gas known at the time; poor communications; warring nations prevented the sharing of information; the need to experiment outweighed safety and Helium had not been available. All these reasons, though factual, had nothing to do with the causes of the individual accidents.

What, then, would have been the Probable Cause of the Wingfoot Air Express accident and what would have been the Recommendations? Since Probable Cause rarely has anything to do with the Root Cause(s) behind any accident, the Probable Cause in a Wingfoot Air Express-type accident could have been an engine that was allowed to operate too hot; the Recommendation would have been to improve engine monitoring methods. A lightning strike; Recommendation: improve meteorological forecasting. Static electricity discharge: Recommendation: prevent static build-up. Cigarette smoking; Recommendation: control where people smoke, which, ironically, the Hindenburg had a smoking room just for this reason.

None of these Recommendations, however, were solutions; they would not have fixed the problem, corrected the Root Cause of the Wingfoot Air Express accident. Engines can operate safely at higher temperatures; lightning exists where rain is not present; every moving airborne object attracts static electricity; many passengers and crew members on passenger dirigibles in the early 1900s, smoked.

The Root Cause, however, would have been specific: the use of Hydrogen as a lifting gas. Contributing factors to the Root Cause could have been expanded to include conditions of combustion, e.g., poor maintenance practices that allowed a gas envelope to leak or poor venting of the envelope area. The Root Cause would have said, no matter what measures were taken to prevent ignition, Hydrogen gas was dangerous to use.

In the end, Wingfoot Air Express caught the attention of the city of Chicago, which updated its aviation safety rules to prevent dirigibles from flying over Chicago. The city’s response was to a Probable Cause mentality; the response did not make aviation safer. Only addressing Root Cause would have improved safety. Anything else was just words on paper.