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Reading The Wreckage

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

The course’s aggressive pace is relieved by breaks and lunches—but even then there’s something to see. Instructors show videos of airplanes crashing and documentaries about the accident investigation process. The classroom itself contains exhibits on investigation processes and equipment, examples of component failure, an enormous cut-away of a Teledyne piston engine, and framed, illustrated case studies showing the effects of inexperience, bad luck, aircraft neglect, and poor judgment. One shows an old Cessna sitting crushed, nose down, on the side of a mountain. The pilot, who had been killed, had only a student license that had expired five years before, and a list found in the cockpit showed about 30 repair items that needed attention, but there was no evidence that any of the repairs had been completed. The airplane had had its last annual inspection five years before the crash.

Mike Grimes, a Teledyne engineer who lectures on engines and propellers, knows that in accidents such as that any number of factors could have contributed. So he tells us to start at the front of the airplane and decide whether the engine was running when the airplane crashed—and then determine what might have caused the engine to stop. “Look for propeller damage that requires a lot of energy,” he says. “Are there massive chunks of aluminum torn out of the leading edge of the blade? Is the hub broken?”

But what if a propeller is missing? Why did it drop off?

“How do you find a missing propeller?” he asks. “You can’t use [FAA tracking] radar data because the propeller is too small, but you can use it to see where the airplane started coming down. That’ll give you a general idea. Then the insurance adjuster becomes your best friend. Why? He’s got the checkbook. Get him to place an ad and offer a reward. Everyone with an SUV is going to be out looking for that prop.”

The other side of crash investigation is, of course, the people—the investigators, the victims, and the survivors. The more harrowing aspects of crash investigation have to be addressed with care and sensitivity. Though the course stays away from graphic images in the classroom, there is a file of photographs that help prepare students for what they might see, and they can view them whenever they choose. “You never know how you’re going to respond,” McMinn says. “We’ve had students look at the pictures and say, ‘I’m in the wrong business.’ ”

One student, Ernest Menet, a technical operations safety manager at Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, is asked to talk to the class about his own experience at a crash site. He was one of the first on the scene when Delta Air Lines Flight 191 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in 1985, killing 134. The accident was attributed to wind shear. “I was really not prepared for what happened that day at DFW,” he begins. “We got a report of an aircraft down, and they thought it was one of ours. We drove out, but it was raining so hard we couldn’t see anything. So we just started walking around, and I began to see the wreckage. I saw some people strapped to their seats who looked just fine, but were dead. I also saw dismemberment, horrible burns, children. That struck home because I have two daughters.

“I felt responsible for what I saw,” continues Menet, who is taking the course to buttress Delta’s accident preparedness. “I looked at the wreckage and thought that these people trusted their lives in what I do. As the head of maintenance, I coordinated our participation in the investigation. I ran on adrenaline for the entire week. I got three hours of sleep each night. When it was over, it was almost a letdown. I started withdrawing into myself, I stopped talking to my family. I had to go through counseling. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I hope you don’t. But it changes you for the rest of your life.”

In the boneyard, we finally get to apply what we’ve learned. The team to which I am assigned confronts a mysterious accident involving a twin-engine Piper Aztec. The airplane crashed inverted in a pasture in Oklahoma after an engine and a large part of the wing fell off. Inside the wreckage, police found $35,000 and several dozen spotlights and motorcycle batteries.

While one team begins sifting through the wreckage, Keith Cianfrani, as Investigator in Charge, and I, as public relations chief, set about securing the site and talking to witnesses, local police, and gawkers. As they do at all of the crash sites in the courtyard, the TSI staff, playing these characters, do their best to challenge the investigators. A friend of one witness reveals that the witness took parts of the wreckage as souvenirs. McMinn comes over as an off-duty air traffic controller who saw the pilot working on the left engine the previous day. The local sheriff asks if she can keep the $35,000 found in the airplane so her department can buy a new squad car.

Then a television journalist and her cameraman—veteran Oklahoma City journalists Rick and Gwin Lippert—arrive and promptly begin aggressive coverage. They aim the camera over our shoulders to videotape our notes and use microphones to eavesdrop on conversations among investigators—both of which can lead to premature assessments or incorrect information being broadcast to the public. On air, Gwin gives me information I didn’t know: The airplane was flying along a known drug route. She also points out that the registration number on the fuselage is merely duct tape. “Don’t you find that fishy?” she demands. “Yes, that is fishy,” is the only reply I can manage.

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