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Reading The Wreckage

Air crash investigators train students to fit little pieces into the big picture.

Other team members are making substantial  progress. They’ve noticed some broom strawing near the left engine, and conclude that an in-flight fire had torn the wing and engine from the fuselage, in spite of the pilot’s efforts to shut off fuel to the engine, as evidenced by switch positions in the smashed cockpit. Later in the classroom, we get the whole story: The pilot was flying to a rendezvous with other aircraft, transporting drugs from Mexico. The spotlights in the baggage compartment were to be used as runway lights at the secret airfield. While working on the engine the day before, the pilot didn’t tighten the fuel lines sufficiently, and leaking fuel ignited on the hot engine.

Accidents such as this are particularly frustrating for crash investigators and safety experts, more because the pilot was careless than because he was participating in illegal activity. “The bottom line is that the majority of these things are preventable through personal training or discipline,” Wall says. “So it’s frustrating when people make poor decisions, like taking off into icing conditions or not properly maintaining their airplanes.”

The students are no strangers to aviation, but they still come away impressed by the investigation process. “It was amazing to see the story unfold in the smallest of details,” says Friday, who monitors Boeing 757 maintenance for American Trans Air. Jack Combs, an Army Reserve helicopter pilot and safety officer at Fort Lewis, Washington, says he learned patience. “The TSI taught us to not form a quick opinion,” he says. “Just sit back, look, listen, and then carefully investigate.”

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