Aviation Safety: unheard of heroics

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WASHINGTON -- When the lights suddenly went out on TWA Flight 24, Capt. Burke Edwards was afraid the plane was on fire.

That would explain why everything electrical in the MD-80 jet, including virtually all the instruments, had suddenly stopped working. The radios were dead. The computer screens were blank. Even the backup instruments were gone.

Co-pilot Patrick Foreman said a silent prayer: "God, just get me on the ground. Please don't let me screw up."

The pilots weren't sure they would make it to Billings, Mont., which was the nearest airport. Edwards wondered if they would have to land the big jetliner on Interstate 90.

Because of their extraordinary effort to land safely, Edwards and Foreman tonight will be among four pilots honored by the Air Line Pilots Association for "superior airmanship" in preventing a catastrophe. Their emergency landing last December is a reminder of the many incidents that occur every day without fanfare. They saved the lives of 99 passengers, but there wasn't a peep about it on CNN.

Most airline problems don't make the news. Take Monday, for example.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not keep a nationwide total, but in just one FAA region -- which includes Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico -- there were 17 incidents ranging from an an engine failure to unruly passengers.

It was a routine day. No crashes. No injuries.

"What this tells you is that in almost all incidents, the system works as it is intended to work," FAA spokesman Paul Turk said. "No single event should put a flight in any special jeopardy."

(Also more at ALPA.org)

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), August 16, 2001


FAA spokesman Paul Turk said. "No single event should put a flight in any special jeopardy."

Umm, what if the wing falls off?


People like these pilots should have their physical prowess lauded, much more so than sports people.

-- number six (!@!.com), August 16, 2001.

"What if a wing falls off."

A fair point. But it's rare that a *single* truly *catastrophic* event brings down an airplane, or most other modern complex technologies. Rather, it's a *series* of errors and failures, perhaps including human factors like fatigue or overly complicated controls, all cascading and interacting in complex ways. See Charles Perrow's book, _Normal Accidents_. I think that's what the spokesman was hinting at: even something as devastating as complete loss of flight information didn't cause a crash, because other factors (the highly trained crew) saved the day.

The remaining question is: why did the plane go dark? Obviously there was a lack of adequate redundancy somewhere, since ultimately even the "backup" data systems weren't working.

Too often in complex systems the "backup systems" aren't truly independent; for example the classic problem of systems sharing the same cable channel somewhere (so that a fire, a short circuit, or a backhoe take out both simultaneously).

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), August 16, 2001.

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