The flight path of both the Northwest and Spanair aircraft are eerily similar…

Two decades ago in Detroit Michigan, Northwest Airlines Flight 255, an MD-82, crashed on takeoff, killing all aboard except for a toddler. The crew had failed to extend the wing flaps and the takeoff configuration warning was disabled due to lack of electrical power to the device, so no warning was sounded.

Now it appears that first witness reports about an engine explosion on Spanair MD-82 upon its takeoff in Madrid, Spain on August 20 were in error. Instead, investigators have found that the plane did not have its wing flaps deployed when it stalled and crashed to the runway killing 153 of its 175 passengers and crew. Once again, it appears that the crew failed to extend the wing flaps, thus ignoring that item on the pre-takeoff check list. The cockpit voice recorder should confirm or deny whether the crew announced the need to set flaps for takeoff.

Typically, takeoff configuration warnings do not sound because they have been disabled due to frequent false warnings. A warning system is useless if it frequently malfunctions because flight crews will just ignore the warnings as unreliable. On the other hand, pre-takeoff check lists, which include challenge and response by the flight crew working together, should have resulted in proper flap extension. It has not yet been determined why the takeoff warning on the Spanair aircraft didn’t work and it was never determined why it didn’t work on the Northwest aircraft more than 20 years ago.

The flight path of both the Northwest and Spanair aircraft are eerily similar, with the nose seen coming up to takeoff altitude, followed by an aerodynamic stall resulting in a rapid descent to the ground with a large loss of life.

The fact that Spanish investigators heard no takeoff configuration warning on the cockpit voice recorder is just a “same-old, same-old” repeat of the well-known adage that aircraft always telegraph their intention to fail long before an accident. This problem has been around for at least 20 years and obviously a fix has not been ordered by the FAA, the agency responsible for ensuring aircraft safety.

It is hideous that the manufacturer hasn’t fixed this known fatal flaw that has now taken hundreds of lives.

– Arthur Alan Wolk


The National Transportation Safety Board has asked the FAA to help in coming up with mandatory technology to be installed in aircraft so their location can be pinpointed within 6 miles of the crash.

These two technology challenged agencies of Government will no doubt, meet for years, establish a task force, contract with industry to come up with suggestions and after spending 100 million dollars or so will come up with the simple answer. It’s called GPS. Instead of wasting taxpayer money, someone at the NTSB should pick up the telephone and call UPS and Fedex. Those two companies know where everything they own is at all times. They can even track your packages so you know where what you entrusted to them is at all times. In other words, this is not rocket science, or even science, it is applied technology that already exists.

Another simple and inexpensive method is to modify the maintenance tracking software that already exists on many commercial aircraft such that it discloses position as well as the health of the aircraft.

That data is already transmitted by satellite to airline maintenance departments and some manufacturers. Adding a line of data would be almost costless.

What will now happen is these two sleepy agencies will convene a seminar at great cost. A paper will no doubt be written and awards given for unique achievements in the field of aviation. A dinner will be held to acknowledge this achievement and ten years from now simple changes that could have been installed yesterday will finally be mandated but only for new airplanes not for the ones that are already flying.

This of course is after a Notice of Proposed Rule Making is issued. A lengthy comment period will follow. Industry will complain that changes aren’t necessary because so few airplanes crash and most don’t crash into the sea never to be found. Complaints will be made about the cost and each comment will be investigated. The rule will become final anyway unless politicians get involved and weigh in on behalf of the airlines and manufacturers. If that happens, then the entire matter will be reopened and studied some more. This is the reason nothing gets timely done to improve aviation safety.

Arthur Alan Wolk