March 9, 2020, © Leeham News: Commercial aviation accidents are high profile news events.
These happen rarely. Many times, a lot of people are killed. (It should be noted that often survivors may outnumber those killed as safety improved.)
In this era of 24/7 cable news and minute-by minute social media, everyone wants instant answers as to causes.
Finding answers is not simple. A typical accident investigation usually takes 12-18 months before the investigators issue a final report with a probable cause.
One reason for this is that sometimes, the cause of an accident comes down to a single bolt, or even a single cotter pin.
This is where the new book, Flight Failure, Investigating the Nuts and Bolts of Air Disasters and Aviation Safety, serves to remind us of just how intricate accident investigation is.
There are many contributing causes to any accident. Author Donald J. Porter doesn’t overlook these. But he cites several accidents where improper installation of a single nut and bolt, or overlooking putting a cotter pin into a bolt, caused loss of control.
Most of Porter’s accidents date to the piston and jet-prop days. One of the crashes cited was the 1961 accident of a TWA Lockheed Constellation in Hinsdale (IL). (Accidents always draw sightseers. Dad took my older brother and me to look at the crash scene. This was my first visit to an airplane crash. It would not be my last.)
Ultimately, the Civil Aeronautics Board (the forerunner of today’s NTSB) determined the cause to be an improperly installed bolt. It fell out shortly after takeoff from Midway Airport, causing a loss of control.
There are also examples in the jet age. Allegiant Air’s near crash on take off from Las Vegas is one. The Boeing MD-80 was on a take-off roll. It began to rotate without pilot command. The pilots successfully aborted the flight. The incident was traced to an improperly installed bolt in the elevator.
Another jet-age incident that was not as fortunate as Allegiant is the crash of an Emery Worldwide Douglas DC-8-71.
This one illustrates how pilots did everything right and still wound up dead.
As the DC-8 was ready for take off from a California airport, the pilots did a control check. Everything worked as it should.
But immediately after lift-off, the plane assumed an abnormally steep nose-up attitude. Control was virtually impossible. As the pilots struggled to return for an emergency landing, the DC-8’s flight path zigged-zagged with up-and-down motions. Pilots tried and tried, but the plane crashed into an auto salvage yard adjacent the airport.
The NTSB investigation determined that a bolt, installed without the locking cotter pin, worked its way loose and fell out during the take-off roll. Three pilots died. So did Emery Worldwide. The investigation revealed systemic safety problems. The parent company shut down the airline.
This accident was features on the program Air Disasters.
Although the focus of the book is on nuts and bolts, Porter recounts the Boeing 737 MAX, American Airlines and THY Turkish Airlines DC-10 accident and other incidents and crashes.
This is a short book, less than 200 pages. Although, as noted, most accidents date to propeller days, it’s clear that today’s jets are not immune to the nuts and bolts of air disasters.
The book is available through Amazon and elsewhere.