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Air Horror

up from civilized Kansas

This is Dark Cloud on Thursday, September 15, 1994.

The US Air flight disaster outside Pittsburgh is a less than cheery topic. They have released transcripts from the cockpit recorder, the tape loop that records the last thirty minutes of an airplane's life. It is predictably scary. An obscenity, a scream, more screams and nothing. It was quick and horrid. It seems now that one of the 737’s two engines either reversed air flow or simply ripped off the plane, turning it over and sending in straight in at 300 knots. This airline has had a fatal disaster every year for the last five. That is far and away the worst in America.

A book put out a few years ago by a British investigator called Final Warning is a rousing indictment of the airline industry, not because it is not statistically safe - it is - but because it could easily be safer. One of his complaints is that most third world airlines are drunken jokes of safety procedures, where people assume they can bring goats and chickens on the plane and put them in the aisle. In those airlines, they can. But now the US and other nations now have forbidden those airlines to land in this country, and as economic magic works, the improvements will come. But it is for the western nations, who have the wherewithal and the experience, that he saves his greatest scorn. I expect, if there is an update to this book, US Air will figure prominently.

First, this problem with the jet reversal system, the thrust reversers, the braking procedure that deafens passengers on landing, is not a new one, but it is an instantaneously deadly one. If it does not rip the engine off the wing, it makes the plane instantly unflyable and there is no alternative but to cut that engine and land on one. Doable, but really, really tough even if you note the problem as it happens. Evidently, this plane had a problem with just that device on just that engine within a month and it was made safe again. But there are a number of 737 crashes, at least one of which is totally unexplained here, in Colorado Springs. If it turns out that it was jet reversal , and if it turns out that is the cause of at least one of the other crashes, you would think planes would be grounded till the problem is fixed, would you not?

Do not count on it. Everyone from the pilots union to the manufacturers to the FAA to the lawyers representing the dead will jockey for position and try to impose a shockingly self-serving decision. There is much that goes into these decisions, not all of it relevant or helpful.

About the only sure improvement is that the crash dead will be interred quickly and reasonably. It was not so long ago or far away, but in 1931 when Knute Rockne was killed in a plane crash, voyeurs gathered at the site and traded body parts. They did. In civilized Kansas.