The accident occurred in November, 1944. Months later, the Civil Aeronautics Bureau released a report recommending changes in design that would enable a plane, even upside down, to withstand buffeting in rough weather. Thus. by determining what went on in the cloud, the G-men of the air contributed to an air-safety record which, in spite of unprecedented postwar expansion in the aviation industry, is now down to 1.3 deaths per 100,000,000 passenger miles flown. the rate for 1945 was 2.2 deaths. Back in 1930 it was 28.6 deaths. For comparison, in 1945, there were 2.9 deaths per 100,000,000 miles of automobile travel.
In 1946 the airlines deoubled the number of their planes. To keep pace with this growth, the Civil Aeronautics Board hoped to double the number of its investigators in the next fiscal year. But trained men who can meet the stiff requirements are hard to find. They must be qualified pilots with a minimum of 1,500 hours in all types of aircraft and at least eight years full-time employment as flyers or specialists in the aviation industry. Most of them have at least 20 years experience.
Like doctors, they are on 24-hour call. Six of them work out of Washington. The other 24 are stationed in regional offices in the U.S. and Alaska. Typical of them is George Gay, a soft-spoken, gray-haired veteran pilot who started flying in 1910, only seven years after the Wright brothers proved it could be done. He had been an Army, Navy, commercial and exhibition flyer, and during the last war commanded a carrier air-support unit in the Pacific.
Gay heads the Safety Bureau's regional office in Flushing, near La Guardia Field, New York. When an accident occurs in his area (as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Ohio) he or one of his staff grabs brief case, microscope and steel tape, hops a special plane to the scene.
Although the Civil Aeronautics Board has its own fleet of planes, reaching the scene of a crack-up is not always easy, particularly in mountainous regions. To inspect the crash which killed 39 near Stephenville, Newfoundland, last October, Gay and his collegues hiked over some of the roughest country in North America. They covered six miles in eight hours.
In the Stephenville accident there wasn't much to do after they got there. With all engines wide open, the big transatlantic ship plowed into the side of a mountain. The answer was not in the charred wreckage. It was tragically simple. Apparently, the pilot forgot the mountain was there.
Plane-crash deectives say that 95 per cent of air accidents can be blamed on this "human factor." This does not always mean the pilot. Dispatchers, mechanics, operations men, weather officials, radio operators, all have their responsibility. But, in the air, when the chips are down, the split-second judgment of the man at the controls is the deciding factor.
Investigators spent two months tracking this one down. They checked and double checked but the scientific evidence invariable pointed o the same conclusion; In preparing for his forced landing, the pilot had made the fatal mistake of cutting the good engine instead of the bad one. It seemed highly improbable that a trained man could make such a blunder. But then the pilot's past record was brought to light. He had been turned down by the scheduled airlines because in tests he had failed to show the cool judgment essential during an emergency.
How a properly qualified pilot reacts in a crisis is indicated by the Willimantic, Conn. accident of last June. A London-bound Constellation with 43 passengers was flying serenely over Connecticut when, with very little warning, the No. 3 engine burned loose and fell to the ground.
Since his landing-gear hydraulic system had been damaged by the fire, the pilot decided on a belly landing at the tiny Willimantic field. He brought his giant ship in with such skill that some of the passsengers didn't even know that plane was in trouble. They were on their way to London in another plane before Gay and his staff arrived at the scene.
At first glance this one looked like a cinch. Apparently half the state of Connecticut had seen the plane trailing smoke.
The fallen engine was found 17 miles from Willimantic, but exhaustive tests at the scene failed to reveal any clues. Gay and Company were wondering why they didn't accept the consensus, call it an induction fire, and go home, when they found a gadget about three feet long known as the drive shaft of the cabin supercharger. This vital piece of the Constellation had plummeted down a few yards from where kids were playing in a field.
As every investigator learns, no two accidents are identical. On a September night in '45, a Miami-to-New York passenger plane requested permission to make an unscheduled landing at Florence, S. C. The pilot's last message was garbled by static. Eight hours later the bodies of passengers and crew were found in the forward section of the charred wreckage in a swamp near Florence. There were no survivors, no witnesses, and no clues in the ashes.
However, a search of the area uncovered tiny bits of burned paper napkins, letters and other inflammable material. With no more of a lead than this, crash detectives set about reconstructing the accident.
Some time after the plane passed over Florence, fire broke out in the rear section. Fed by the inflammable material, it quickly spread forward. The pilot turned back for the airport as passengers and crew fought to control the flames. The fire burned a hole in the fuselage and the napkins and letters fell out as the ship lost altitude. As the flames licked closer and closer, the passengers huddled together in the narrow passageway just behind the pilot's compartment.
Exactly what started the fire was never determined. But contributing factors are sometimes more important than the original cause. Immediate orders went out to eliminate inflammable articles in the rear section.
By measuring the distance from where a plane hits to its final resting place, experts can estimate its course and speed. Propeller marks in the snow near a mountain crack-up may be the starting point for another solution. Position of ignition switch and landing gear indicate whether the pilot was expecting trouble. Depth to which parts of the plane are buried in the ground and the manner in which trees are knocked over also provide important evidence.
Instruments tell their own story, often giving the speed, altitude, and exact time of the crash. Responsibility for a mid-air collision can often be fixed by a detailed study of the structural damage. Actually, material evidence is usually more accurate than eyewitness accounts.
Even the pilot's testimony must be treated skeptically. He's usually too busy trying to land his ship to make accurate observations or send in a radio report. After a crash, he often experiences the same memory blackout as the boxer who can't recall the blow that flattened him. Once in a lifetime an investigator may be lucky enough to come across a pilot who frankly admits it was his own mistake that caused the accident.
was kindly provided by
William L. Estes, LCdr. USN (Ret)