Thursday, September 18, 2008

Madrid MD-82 Crash, Déjà Vu

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
September 18, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Criminalization of Air Disasters

Nothing good comes of criminal prosecutions following 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
September 9, 2008