Month: September 2008

CRIMINALIZATION OF AIR DISASTERS

While such proceedings may satisfy the public’s zeal to punish those responsible, the result is that the flow of information necessary to correct aviation problems dries up over the long term because of the fear that such information will be used for criminal prosecution in the event of accidents.

It is bad enough that manufacturers and airlines now hide what they do, or more importantly what they don’t do, in an effort to escape civil liability for accidents. Criminalization has always been fraught with the specter of witnesses using their Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate themselves (which has the effect of impeding investigations that might result in safety improvements).

Moreover, public authorities, whether prosecutors or public investigators, do a terrible job at investigating aircraft accidents and are too often the tools of manufacturers and airlines. Plaintiffs’ lawyers do the majority of aircraft accident investigations in the United States and spend far more, examine more intensively and extensively, and take sworn testimony more often to get to the bottom of these accidents. Criminalization will impede, not enhance, these efforts. What we need is more zealous sanctions when airlines and manufacturers hide information from the certifying authorities, distort warnings received from the field and flat out lie during civil proceedings. We need fewer judges who are selected for their promise to deter plaintiffs’ lawsuits; we should go back to hiring judges based on their demonstrated lack of bias and predilection.

This issue has been around for years and is most often discussed in countries where civil litigation does not exist the way it does in the United States. Where there is no suitable vehicle to get to the truth civilly, criminalization is the fall-back position taken out of frustration. The real solution is to expand civil litigation systems in countries that don’t currently have them so that safety is enhanced rather than deterred by the regressive effects of criminalization.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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At this stage of aviation history, there is no reason for this disaster and both the horror and pain it has caused to so many families

One hundred fifty-three people were killed when a fully-loaded Spanair MD-82 crashed on takeoff from the Madrid airport on August 20, 2008. Witnesses describe an explosion in the left engine and the aircraft falling to the runway, veering off and then exploding into an inferno.

About one hour before the crash, the crew was reported to have aborted a takeoff because of a high temperature warning, known as an overtemp, from the left engine. Troubleshooting took place and the aircraft was again dispatched for a three-hour flight to the Canary Islands. The aircraft was full of fuel and the outside temperature was a warm 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is inexplicable and horrendous that an aircraft such as this was cleared for service without an engine change when they couldn’t possibly have known what damage resulted from the overtemp. This situation in a jet engine is a serious matter requiring extensive investigation, not merely an hour’s worth of troubleshooting. It does not happen without good, and usually serious, cause including imminent failure of hot section components, failure of compressor and fan assemblies or likely turbine disintegration.

Jet engines nearly always telegraph their imminent failure and this one surely did. It was ignored. The Pratt and Whitney JT8D engine has had a long and satisfactory service history starting with the Boeing 727, 737, DC-9 and all the MD-80’s. While generally reliable, it has exploded all too frequently and is the subject of numerous service bulletins and airworthiness directives by the Federal Aviation Administration as well as aviation safety agencies in other countries. Some have exploded so violently that the containment rings that are designed to prevent penetration of debris into other critical aircraft components have proved to be insufficient.

When the MD-82 was built and certified, it was supposed to be able to safely fly with one engine if the other failed after reaching V1 (the speed at which it becomes safe to continue the takeoff in spite of the failure of an engine). However, the claim was substantiated by test pilots who know the engine will be simulated to fail, and not by flight crews who are totally surprised by the event on a hot day while fully loaded.

It is not surprising that the airplane didn’t fly because expecting humans to perform to perfection is unreasonable, and the temperature and weight were likely well beyond the test parameters. At the controls were Spanair test pilots who were also victims of a cascade of events that came together to create this tragedy.

At this stage of aviation history, there is no reason for this disaster and both the horror and pain it has caused to so many families. Airline travel can and ought to be 100 percent safe if people do their jobs. This was an unnecessary accident.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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