We are All Safer
March 25 2002
We are All Safer
The opening line of the NTSB web page states “The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in the other modes of transportation … and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.” Most of us wholeheartedly agree that the NTSB lives up to its goals and beyond. It is one of the few governmental agencies in the world almost untainted with accusations of bureaucracy, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, bias and the slew of such negativities hurled at most major organizations.
The mission of the NTSB is short and succinct “to prevent accidents and save lives in transportation”. The NTSB lives up to this mission by performing thorough, no-holds-barred investigations over every mishap that happens in the US and beyond its borders. These investigations leads to deeper insights into the cause of accidents and eventually trends. These trends lead to “recommendations” by the NTSB, which are taken seriously—and lead to changes in design, manufacture, operation and training of transportation, notably aviation.
“We Are All Safer” is a publication of the NTSB that chronicles the findings and recommendations and subsequent changes that have happened as the board presided over the safety issues. It is a fascinating read of major accidents and the conclusions. From windshear to aircraft seats, from alcohol impairment to safety belts, from aircraft design to crew management, about 300 NTSB recommendations are implemented every year. These have saved countless lives and have made travel significantly safer for all of us.
In spite of the kudos and the respect the NTSB has garnered, no organization staffed by people can be above controversy. On October 31, 1999 at 1:20 am, Egypt Air flight 990 took off on a clear dark night, from New York’s JFK Airport, bound for a 10-hour flight to Cairo. About 30 minutes into the flight as dinner service was in full swing in the cabin, something went awfully wrong. At 1:50am the plane was at 33,000 ft when it entered a steep dive and reaching “negative G’s” and sped up well beyond its maximum design speed of 0.86 Mach. Soon thereafter, the speed went to 0.99 Mach and the plane fell to 22,000 ft. Then the plane pulled up, inflicting enormous G forces and climbed to 27,000ft where at 1:52am the stress broke the structures apart. The wreckage was strewn on the ocean 60 miles of the Massachusetts coast (International waters).
In spite of the accident being outside the jurisdiction of the United States, the NTSB was commissioned to investigate along with ECAA (the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority). The result was dubious at best. The NTSB released its final report on March 13, 2002. The 160-page document consists of a 70-page report detailing every possible scenario along with charts, graphs and investigation findings. The final conclusion is sinister—the plane was deliberately crashed by a suicidal “relief pilot”, Mr. El Battouti, who was a passenger on the flight, but was at the controls with permission from the captain. The document also contains 40 pages of transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder and 34 pages of a scathing response from ECAA.
The response to the NTSB report, from ECAA is unflattering at best. A section heading reads “The NTSB’s Investigation Was Marked By Procedural Irregularities and the Failure to Follow Accepted Accident Investigation Standards” and includes a comment stating “The NTSB’s actions, unfortunately, resulted in an extraordinary waste of time, effort, and resources…”.
The ECAA also published a 226-page report, with amazing amount of technical depth, and thoroughness of investigations. The technical content of the ECAA report in many ways outshines the NTSB report. The conclusions are however different. According to the ECAA there is no evidence that Mr. El Battouti did anything detrimental; in fact his actions were consistent with trying to recover from a bad situation. While not conclusive, the accident has a high possibility of being caused by a simultaneous mechanical failure of two of the three “Power Control Actuators” that control the elevator surfaces. Both reports can be found at the NTSB web site ().
The wrestling between NTSB and ECAA smack of international politics. The American agency absolves an American aircraft of any malfunction and points the finger at an Egyptian crewmember with murderous intentions. The Egyptian agency holds its citizen above reproach and points the finger at the American aircraft. However, if the story ended there, it would be a relief.
There are many other theories of this crash, a notable one is from an outfit called the “Enterprise Mission”. In their expose, they present seemingly irrefutable evidence (based on NTSB findings) that explain the crash not as a suicidal act or a mechanical failure. The crash was a result of a desperate move by the pilots to avoid a mid-air collision with a UFO. Radar blips of some object near the aircraft further reinforce this theory. The radar echoes are acknowledged by the NTSB report, but dismissed as electrical noise.
TWA-800, a Boeing 747 took off from JFK bound for Paris in July 1996. The aircraft blew apart 10 minutes after takeoff. Almost the entire plane was reconstructed from the debris and every recoverable part was examined. The investigation was thorough, very painstaking and expensive. The conclusion, contained in an exhaustive 341 page report, was a “probably cause” of “an explosion of the center wing fuel tank”.
The controversy surrounding this conclusion is overwhelming. The alternate theory is that a missile accidentally, or maybe deliberately shot down the plane. The evidence presented by the missile theorists is also thorough and painstaking. From eyewitness reports to bullet-like holes in the fuselage, to many other stories the evidence seems conclusive that the NTSB report is flawed. Most of the evidence in the missile theory is acknowledged in the NTSB report (which contains 736 eyewitness reports). The NTSB offers alternate reasons for discounting the alternate evidence. Somewhat disturbing is that a respected journalist, Pierre Salinger, who bolstered the alternate theory, was subsequently ostracized and character assassinated by his fellow colleagues, lending credence to those who claim the government and the mainstream media conspired a cover-up.
In recent times, airline accidents continue to be controversial. United flight 73 was one of the four flights hijacked on the infamous 9/11 attacks, in which two planes downed the World Trade Center and one crashed the Pentagon. The official line is that United 73 flew headlong into the ground while passengers and hijackers had fistfights in the cockpit.
The alternate theorists point out too many inconsistencies in the official explanation. The wreckage is concentrated in two spots, eight miles apart. How did hat happen? The FBI has refused to released the cockpit voice recorder transcripts saying the “tape is too horrible” and would not contribute to anything. Supposedly witnesses heard explosions before they saw the plane come crashing down. Supposedly they saw another “mystery jet”. The amount of material culled by the theorists is quite overwhelming. The conclusion? Many people believe that the plane was either shot down by a military jet (to prevent it from being used like the other three planes) or there was a bomb aboard. Is there any truth to such theories? We will probably never know.
Similar theories dog the official reasons extended for the crash of American Airlines flight 587. A month after the World Trade center tragedy, shortly after takeoff from JFK (gosh, is JFK such a bad place?) the plane crashed into a residential suburb of New York. Preliminary briefings from the NTSB, who have studied the wreckage, interviewed 350 witnesses, examined the flight recorders and worked very hard, is that the tail of the plane fell off, or rather there was “separation of the vertical stabilizer”. Again, the naysayers do not believe that. “Yet another cover up”, they cry. There was a bomb on the plane. And once again, they have evidence to back up the claims.
To take the side of such alternate viewpoints, they serve a very important function—the function of a hawkish, though overbearing, watchdog. Governments and the military do lie. There have been many admissions from the US government of past lies (well after the perpetrators are gone). All of these admissions are forced by evidence culled by the so-called conspiracy groups (so named, as they see a conspiracy to cover up, behind every governmental statement).
In spite of the few controversies the NTSB remains a jewel in the crown of the US government. One of the 4 goals of the NTSB is “To be the best managed agency in government in order to facilitate the accomplishment of our other goals.” Every time you board a commercial aircraft in any part of the world, be reassured that the flight will be a safe one. Dedication, perseverance, people, technology, scientific rigor and a quest for the truth have led to safety standards of historical proportions. In spite of accidents, terrorism, UFO’s, suicides, weather, pilot error and other oddities, about 1.6 million people check-in to airplanes every year, and about 300 fail to check-out.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha