Guest Blog: Seventeen Years Later, TWA 800 Still Teaches Lessons
Every year the National Transportation Safety Board allows organizations outside the federal government to enroll students in aircraft accident investigation school.† This is not a watered-down version; rather, itís the same course provided to new investigators.† The vast majority of students are representatives of entities whose employees, products, or services are likely to be involved if an aircraft accident occurs.† Examples include airframe, engine, and avionics manufacturers.† Airlines, unions, and training providers are also represented.† Those with technical expertise that may aid the investigative process are allowed to become an interested party. †This has innumerable benefits including the ability to see evidence, submit comments, and make arguments for or against a hypothesis.† The training is an important prerequisite of what to expect if the bad day ever happens.† As an instructor pilot and CRM/Human Factors program manager for a large part 142 school, I was allowed to participate in March of 2013.
Although digital voice recorders, flight data recorders, and radar analysis plots are great technological advancements, thereís still a lot of info gleaned from paint transfers, frayed cables, and compressed metal. †Sometimes those are the only things available.† The fundamental underpinnings that evolved from the first official investigation in 1908--the one that killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge and injured Orville Wright--are applicable today.† An investigatorís job is to identify the origin of the failure and place it within the sequence of the overall event.† Ultimately the probable cause has to be determined.† Itís often a matter of good old-fashioned detective work.† Becoming an expert requires a great deal of hands-on experience. Knowing what to look for is critical.†
To facilitate learning, many aviation investigation schools use wreckage from actual accidents.† Parts of the aircraft are arranged similar to how they were discovered the day of the event.† A mock investigation takes place and students hypothesize what happened. One of the best training tools at the NTSBís disposal is located at the academy in Ashburn, Va.† Painstakingly reconstructed in a position of prominence in the hangar sits a 96-foot section of a severely damaged aircraft.† Faint paint markings and a partially scorched logo reveal the origin of the 60,000 pound behemoth: this is the center fuselage section of TWA 800.
Being far removed from where the event occurred does not minimize the experience.† Although the tail section, wings, and engines are not present, a very large section of the fuselage still remains.† Whatís left is a mosaic of nearly 1600 parts reassembled on a steel scaffold. The center fuel tank area is exposed and predictably, draws a lot of attention. †Structural failure is clearly evident and the right side exhibits more damage than the left Ė a telltale sign of initial impact with the ocean.
What sets this reconstruction apart from similar mock-ups is the ability to enter the cabin.† Parts of the airplane have been attached to the scaffolding in way that provides a three dimensional perspective.† Upon climbing a set of stairs representative of the height of the boarding doors, a sea of passenger seats comes into view.† Nearly all the seats in this section of the aircraft were recovered and each has been returned to the original location.† The NTSB is sure of this because seats at the time were manufactured with the row number and position on the armrests. ††Iíve had the opportunity to examine the wreckage three times now, including as a student in the 10-day accident investigation course taught at the academy.†
Objectivity is a required trait, but I canít help but get a little pensive each time I see it.† Itís evident that others feel the same.† The emotional impact doesnít fade over time.† Walking down the reconstructed aisles of the 747, I visualize the occupants as the aircraft taxied out on a hot summer day in 1996.† Iím always mesmerized by the cockpit center console and the positions of the thrust levers.† As a pilot, I think about how hard the crew worked to regain control.† Given the controversy surrounding the probable cause of the crash, it might have been easier to tuck the remains in a secret location far from view.† Instead, the NTSB and the families of the victims decided on a more noble purpose for TWA 800 Ė to aid in future investigations and develop recommendations to prevent a reoccurrence. †
Regardless of oneís personal convictions about the veracity of the origin of the breakup, thereís irrefutable value in the aftermath.† Every accident evokes important lessons.† Listening and learning is up to us.