Reading The Wreckage
Air crash investigators train students to fit little pieces into the big picture.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 4 of 5)
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.
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.”