Visiting the NTSB

From NAFI's Chair

Visiting the NTSB

I recently had a very sobering experience. I had the opportunity to visit the National Transportation Safety Board training facility in suburban Washington, D.C. In what it refers to as the "boneyard," there are pieces of aircraft wreckage that are assembles in various configurations to simulate accidents for their students, allowing them to practice techniques to determine root cause.

My specific purpose, along with others in my group, was to learn more about how the NTSB is using unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, technology to aid in accident investigation. It was interesting and enlightening, and, although, serious in nature, a fairly dispassionate session.

Prior to that, though, our NTSB host gave a talk about the history and results of one of the most extensive and expensive aviation accident investigations in U.S. history: that of TWA flight 800. For those of you who may not remember, this was a 747-131 that departed New York's John F. Kennedy International airport for a flight to Paris and Rome on the evening of July 17, 1996. As the aircraft was climbing to altitude over the Atlantic Ocean just south of Long Island, it exploded and plunged into the sea, killing all 230 aboard. After an exhaustive, often controversial investigation, the NTSB determined that the explosion was caused by a short circuit in a fuel sensing system located in the center fuel tank.

At the time of the accident, I was commuting from my home near Spirit of St. Louis airport to downtown St. Louis. On many mornings, I would see a TWA 747 being vectored over downtown to the final approach to either runway 30L or 30R, on what I found out was likely an arrival from TWA's Hawaiian flight. After the accident, I realized that, given the size of TWA's 747 fleet, there was a good chance I'd seen the accident aircraft on one of those mornings. Later, as I was advancing to my flight instructor certificate, I learned that I was one handshake away from one of the flight crew of TWA 800. All of this was somber to me and filed away in my mind as a tragedy from which we should learn.

What has made this personal and altogether more "real," was what occurred after the talk in the NTSB auditorium. I hadn't thought about the reconstruction of the critical portion of the accident aircraft in years. In fact, I had a vague assumption that it had been disposed of years ago. This is not so. As part of the teaching experience, our speaker took us to see the actual aircraft, explaining the accident sequence and how investigators could determine the order and types of events that occurred.

I will write about this in more depth in the upcoming issue of Mentor magazine, but, for the moment, this has served as a vivid reminder of the responsibility all of us in the aviation community share to ensure the safety of the public and ourselves, particularly as we continue to mentor newcomers to aviation.

Bob Meder,
NAFI Board Chair
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