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Thursday, November 1, 1979

Danger Aloft


Despite Major Gains,
Airliners Still Present Mechanical Hazards[1]


Metal Fatigue Is Common;
Landing Gear and Tires Also Cause Fatal Mishaps

Pushing People Out a Door

By William M. Carley Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

LOS ANGELES-- It was to be a festive event: Capt Eugene Hersche's last flight as a Continental Airlines pilot before retiring. His wife, according to aviation tradition, was a passenger on the flight to Honolulu, along with 198 other passengers and crew members. Although it was rainy and gusty that morning, March 1, 1978, spirits were high.

After the DC10 taxied to the end of the runway at Los Angeles International Airport, the big jet began its takeoff roll normally. But when it reached 175 miles an hour, one tire on the left landing gear blew out, then another, and then a third.[2]

As the plane sagged to the left, Gene Hersche screamed, "Abort!" He reversed engine thrust and hit the brakes. But the jet rolled off the end of the runway at nearly 80 miles an hour. The left landing gear collapsed, fuel tanks ruptured, and the plane burst into flames. While most passengers and crew members, including the pilot and his wife, managed to flee to safety, four people were killed and 30 seriously injured by fire.

In the annals of U.S. aviation accidents, the number of casualties in the Continental crash was relatively small. But subsequent investigations showed that without quick action by airport firemen, the accident could have been far more serious. It might even have ranked among the worst disasters in U.S. airline history.


This article is particularly telling because it comes closer to telling the situation as it really is than any other, however, as is done in all media today, just enough is said so that the newspaper couldn't be sued for lying but it leaves the uninformed with an erroneous impression of the actual situation.

1. Are you left with the impression that almost every problem has been taken care of except a few? Is that true?

2. When one tire blows, it will usually damage the surrounding tires and the fuselage as it did on a Capitol Airways DC-8 at Shannon airport (Ireland) in 1977 where

* "shrapnel from disintegrating wheels punched a 3-in. gash in the wing fuel tank and a fire ensued, causing extensive damage." or when

* a United Airlines fuselage was torn by a tire explosion on take-off at Chicago O'Hare in 1995 or when

* "...debris from the second burst tyre punctured a third ... the strain caused the fourth and last tyre on the right-hand undercarriage to fail." And many more examples to follow.

The Continental accident also illustrates an aspect of the industry's safety record that sometimes is overlooked. As dependable and safe as the big new jets are, they still have shortcomings. Something as simple as a tire blowout can jeopardize a jumbo jet and all its passengers. Tire blowouts, in fact, have become far more common and potentially far more dangerous than many people realize.

3. "When airlines say they have records of "100 million passenger-miles without an accident," the implication is that all those miles were equally hazardous, which is preposterous. Most accidents happen in and around airports, so the distance between takeoff and landing does not count for very much. If only the distances traveled by airplanes around airports were totaled, it could be proved that intercity buses and trains are safer than flying in commercial airplanes." Professor Cantilli in Crash-worthy Planes: The Future of Flight"

4. For whose benefit is the National Safety Council run? Yours and mine or big industry? Are they trying to deceive us? See item 3. above.

Steady Improvement

Undoubtedly, the overall safety record of U.S. Airlines has been improving steadily in recent years. Prior to 1965, the number of fatal accidents per million commercial aircraft miles[3] ranged around 0.010, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Since then, the rate has dropped 80% to 0.002. Taking a scheduled flight, the National Safety Council says, is about 33 times safer than driving your own car.[4]

Responsible for the improving safety record are several developments. James Robinson, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration's engineering and manufacturing division, cites jet engines, which are more reliable than the old piston engines, and better pilot training, which is aided by more sophisticated simulators.

The FAA official and others also credit improved aircraft design and electronics.

New planes have super-precise navigation systems, for example. When Lockheed Corp. delivered an L-1011 jet to British Airways recently, the plane took off from Lockheed's plant at Palmdale, Calif., and was put on automatic pilot. The L-1011 then flew 6,000 miles to England and landed at Heathrow Airport without the pilot ever touching the controls.

But as good as the air-transport system its, it has fatal flaws. Witness the American Airlines DC10 crash in Chicago this year,[5] the Pacific Southwest Airlines collision with a Cessna over San Diego last year, and the Pan American World Airways collision with a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines plane on a runway in the Canary Islands in 1977. These three accidents killed a total of 984 persons. And just yesterday, a Western Air Lines DC10 crashed while attempting to land at Mexico City; at least 69 persons died.

What flaws lead to such fatalities? And, how are engineers and other safety experts working to eliminate them?

In a study of 71 fatal airline accidents in the decade through 1977, the National Transportation Safety Board found pilot error in 63%[6] of the cases and other human error in 43%. Bad weather was blamed in 45%, and mechanical failures in 27%. (The figures total in excess of 100% because, oftentimes, more than one factor was involved.)

That big jets have mechanical problems isn't surprising, if only because the planes are so complex. Just designing the new 767 is keeping more than 3,000 engineers and other workers busy, Boeing says.[7]

Some problems with jets are so common as to be almost routine. An example: metal fatigue, which over time causes numerous structural cracks. To combat this problem, planes are designed to be "fail-safe"--that is, if one structure cracks and fails, others can carry the load, at least long enough for the plane to land. And inspections are designed to catch cracks even before the first structure fails.

Nevertheless, the system can fail--disastrously. As a Dan-Air 707 cargo jet came in from a landing at Lusaka, Zambia, in 1977, the starboard tail plane broke off and the aircraft fell, killing the crew of five. That accident touched off checks of 707s around the world, and cracks were found in the tail structures of 26 more of the Boeing planes. Airlines including U.S. carriers such as Pan Am, Trans World Airlines and American, are beefing up the tail structures on their 707s. Meanwhile, they are inspecting the 707 tails more often.

Another example of how the safety system can break down involves lightning. Jets are frequently struck by lightning, and they are built to absorb it safely. But in 1976, as an Iranian Air Force 747 jumbo jet was landing at Madrid, Spain, lighting hit the plane and evidently triggered a fuel-tank explosion. The left wing fell off, the plane crashed, and the crew died. Now, 747s around the world are being fixed to improve resistance to lighting.

Among the more difficult problems vexing airplane designers, however are the landing in general and tires in particular On most planes, inclusion of a second or redundant, landing-gear system simply isn't practical.[8] As a result, engineers can't use the fail-safe design philosophy applied in most other parts of the plane.

"Safe-Life" Strategy

As a substitute, engineers use a "safe-life" design strategy. Under this method, a landing gear is built tough enough to go through at least three times the takeoffs and landings that the plane normally would encounter in its life. Thus, the Boeing 737 can be expected to make 75,000 takeoffs and landings, but its landing gear is designed to handle at least 225,000.

5. The Chicago DC10 crash where the aircraft lost its port engine during take-off, flipped on its back and crashed killing everyone on board is a text-book example on how utterly feeble the fuselage is and how little protection it provides.

KLM vs. Pan Am 747s - both destroyed
Tenerife 1977, two 747s collide on the runway

6. Pilots always get the blame. They're easy targets, they have virtually no clout to defend themselves, they're in control of machines whose design is dependent on complexity and that very complexity makes them virtually impossible to control in case of malfunction.

Mechanix Illustrated "Crashes CAN be harmless", June 1941 states: "Planes should be designed so they can take a good crash. Research departments can easily boast that they have developed instruments and gadgets that make crashes entirely avoidable. They can add these things to the pilots' compartment until the walls are cluttered up with them from top to bottom. They can evolve all manner of flapping, fluttering doo-dads that pop out of tails and wings and accomplish some purpose or other. For the most part, these things work quite well, but most of them need considerable attention from the pilot. When something unforeseen happens you can't blame the poor pilot for making a little error." And yet that's precisely what happens!

7. It also means airplanes are more expensive, thus increasing the cost of financing, of insurance (both institutions are closely linked and contribute to an enormous percentage of the overall cost of owning and operating an airplane). It also means higher employment, higher revenue, higher profits but someone has to pay for that: you! (and in some cases with your life)

DC-10 American Airlines, Chicago 1979
DC-10 flips on its back, all perish.

8. It isn't practical to include a redundant landing-gear because it weighs too much. An aircraft whose fuselage contributes nothing to lift, with wings so small it has to be completely reconfigured before it can land or take-off, cannot be a viable economic work-horse if it weighs too much. Conversely, a lifting-body aircraft doesn't need a redundant landing gear because its take-off and landing speeds are low enough not to be a problem to the tires.

continued ...

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