Ask the pilot

A catalog of horrors: Wings falling off, gashed fuselages, and sensationalist bloggers.


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Patrick Smith
January 6, 2006 4:30PM (UTC)

On Dec. 26, an in-flight decompression struck an Alaska Airlines MD-80 shortly after takeoff from Seattle. A foot-long gash was later found in the plane's fuselage. The damage was apparently caused by a baggage handler who struck the plane with a loading cart, then failed to report the accident. What may have initially appeared as a minor skin crease became a full-blown rupture under the forces of pressurization.

The alleged perpetrator was a non-union worker employed by an Alaska Airlines subcontractor, providing yet more kindling for the growing controversy surrounding air carrier outsourcing. Last spring, in a cost-cutting move, Alaska's baggage- and ground-handling operations were taken over by a British company, Menzies Aviation. Menzies workers replaced more than 500 positions formerly held by higher-paid Alaska employees.

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A hole in an airplane is a serious matter, for sure, but this was not an explosive decompression, and the MD-80 remained structurally sound. The emergency descent and return to Seattle were straightforward and by-the-book, presenting little danger to the plane's occupants. This is one of those rare instances where, at least at the outset, the press and media actually got it right, with a modest volume of coverage and some levelheaded analysis.

Unfortunately, much attention soon became focused on the blog of Jeremy Hermanns, a private pilot who was a passenger aboard flight 536. His photos from the MD-80's cabin, including a digital self-portrait complete with plastic mask, were picked up by newspapers around the country, while interview requests began to pour in.

I found Hermanns' account of the incident, which he describes as "horrific," and "the unthinkable," to be luridly overblown. He confuses the smell of activated oxygen canisters as that of commercial jet fuel, which he wrongly identifies as "AV-gas" or "JP4" (it is neither). Hermanns said repeatedly that he believed the fuselage hole was located at the back of the aircraft. Some news stations actually showed an MD-80 with graphics inexplicably pointing to the jet's rear pressurization outflow valve as the purported hole -- well aft, and on the opposite side, of the damage. "Ask the Pilot" obtained this photograph from an Alaska Airlines employee (who asks to remain anonymous) showing the actual puncture. As you can see, it is well forward of the wing.

Along with dozens of other readers, I went ahead and left some comments on Hermanns' blog. The majority of passengers, I wrote, could not be blamed for feeling scared and confused. It was noisy, and no doubt disorienting for many of the plane's occupants; the need for the crew to initiate a rapid descent would have been frightening to those who didn't understand what was happening. But it was not a life-threatening situation. The plane lost cabin pressure and so the pilots descended as quickly as possible to a lower altitude. They did nothing heroic or unusual, and will be the first ones to admit it. As professional airline pilots, they did what they're supposed to do. Any other crew would have done the same thing. The passengers, meanwhile, assisted by the cabin crew, could breathe using their drop-down masks.

Now, different kinds of in-flight decompressions can result in different situations -- some more hazardous than others. Bombs, for example, can tear apart an entire fuselage in fractions of a second. Large-scale structural failure, like the infamous fuselage burst of an Aloha Airlines 737 in 1988, in which a flight attendant was killed and the airplane nearly destroyed, can be similarly disastrous. A year later, nine passengers were ejected from a United Airlines 747 when a defective cargo door came unlatched after takeoff, peeling open a portion of the fuselage. And in 1973, another blown cargo door brought on the collapse of the cabin floor and one of the most horrific crashes of all time -- that of a Turkish Airlines DC-10 outside Paris, killing 346 people (the DC-10's door was later redesigned).

But those are extremely rare occurrences, and that's not what happened to the Alaska Airlines plane. The breach was a small one, and once the cabin pressure had escaped, it could be reasonably assumed that the plane was going to stay in one solid piece and fly just fine. Which it did.

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Hermanns reminds us that he's a private pilot, but he seems to have been just as needlessly panic-stricken as all those non-pilots around him.

Most of this was included in my post on Hermanns' blog. He promptly deleted the entire thing. Believing it might have been a mistake, I later reposted the identical text. Again, it disappeared within minutes.

My dissection was meant to be instructive and helpful, and I certainly have no association with Alaska Airlines. Yet he chose to censor it. It's interesting, because he had no problem leaving up many rude and offensive comments, but deleted mine because they didn't fully jibe with his contentions. I complained to Hermanns and asked why he'd done this. Here, consolidated for clarity, is his reply:

"Your statements literally amazed me. This was a careless accident caused by, and not reported by, a baggage cart operator impacting the plane's fuselage. I was unaware a foot-long hole tearing open in a fuselage at full altitude while traveling at cruise speed isn't that serious. I hope you got paid a grip of cash to write that article. And, yes, I did delete your technical fluffery. Next time, try to address the situation at hand, not the imaginative one. Nice try, PR hack!"

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For good measure, he included this postscript: "Please don't reply -- I probably won't read it." A follow-up e-mail later that afternoon was even more belligerent.

My post discussed neither the cause of the incident, nor who was at fault; that's an altogether different topic. I addressed only Hermanns' description of the in-flight events and the realities of a depressurization, to let people know that from an after-the-fact and objective point of view, the plane was in little danger of crashing. Hermann himself had no idea there had been a fuselage breach, or how it was made, until well after the aircraft had returned to Seattle.

If anyone was working the P.R. angle, it was Hermanns, with his theatrically mask-strapped mug splashed on newspapers and on "Good Morning America," describing a loss of cabin pressure as "horrific" and "the unthinkable." And it's craftily moderated Web pages like his that make many people scoff at the notion of bloggers as journalists.

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As for the truly horrific and unthinkable, let's change setting from West Coast to East Coast.

In the hierarchy of irritating concerns hurled at pilots by fearful passengers, none got the eyes rolling faster than this old staple: "What if the wing breaks off?" Most of us can picture grainy World War II footage of B-17s shattered by antiaircraft fire, but under normal flying conditions, instances of spontaneous fuselage-wing separation are so exceedingly rare that, offhand, I could not cite one in the entire history of modern commercial aviation.

Then came Dec. 19, and the deadly accident involving a commuter seaplane in Miami. Twenty people died when the 59-year-old Grumman G-73 Turbo Mallard, operated by Chalk's Ocean Airways, plummeted into a shipping channel just after takeoff. Investigators could put it no other way: The wing broke off.

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But if you're a nervous flier feeling pangs of justification, please hold off for a moment on those I-told-you-so e-mails. This crash, perhaps more than any other in recent years, needs to be viewed in a very tight context. Its singular strangeness will surely be linked to the uniqueness of Chalk's operations and the unusual set of challenges it presents: Almost nothing is rarer than vintage seaplanes in scheduled passenger service.

It's possible, if not probable, that the loss of the Mallard's starboard wing will be traced to metal fatigue brought on by age. As a rule, old planes are not unsafe planes. That's a point I've emphasized many times, and indeed commercial aircraft are constructed to last more or less indefinitely. But this is different. The aircraft in the accident, registered N2969 and pictured here two years ago, was constructed in 1947, putting it on the verge of its 60th birthday. That's considerably older than virtually any commercial passenger plane, large or small, flying in the world today, with the exception of a few widely scattered DC-3s.

Internal corrosion, the result of routine exposure to salt water, might also have played a role. The Mallard is in fact amphibious -- equipped with floats and a hull-shaped fuselage for water operations, as well as conventional landing gear -- but those at Chalk's spent much of their time in the Atlantic around South Florida and the Bahamas. Ocean flying demands an extra level of oversight. A Florida institution for more than 85 years, Chalk's certainly knows this, but what steps the airline has taken toward enhanced care of its ancient birds is unclear. Calls to the carrier were not returned, and the FAA remains mum pending further review.

Potentially compounding the effects of age and/or corrosion were the thousands of short-haul takeoffs and landings -- "cycles" as they're called in the business -- performed by the seaplane on intra-Florida and Bahamas routes. Although Mallards are unpressurized -- cycle totals tend to be more important with pressurized aircraft, due to repeated flexing and stressing of the fuselage -- this type of operation adds wear and tear to any airframe.

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Fatigue and corrosion grow and spread surreptitiously. (I was asked via e-mail, "How did the pilots fly from Fort Lauderdale to Miami earlier that day without knowing a wing was about to give way?" That's a bit like asking the people of northern Pakistan why they didn't know there was about to be an earthquake.) Less fatal, but no less dramatic events have been traced to environments similar to those at Chalk's. An aging plane, exposure to salt air, and a punishing short-haul schedule were partly responsible for the fuselage burst of that aforementioned Aloha Airlines jet over Hawaii. (Inspection methods were modified afterward for aircraft in service over 14 years.)

One more thing to consider: In the 1970s, the Mallard was granted FAA approval for an engine conversion program. Many of the type, including those flown by Chalk's, had their original piston engines replaced by Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turboprops. Although the PT-6 series engine is one of the most popular and successful turboprops of all time, the retrofit sparked controversy. Some believed the power plant was too big and powerful for the Mallard's postwar-era skeleton. Nevertheless, FAA gave its blessings and the program went ahead. Seeing how only 59 Mallards were ever built to begin with, many of them scrapped decades ago, this difference of opinion wasn't exactly front-page news.

There's also a possibility that the wing did not separate spontaneously, but may have been shorn off by aerodynamic forces following a fuel tank explosion or catastrophic engine/propeller problem. A fireball hung in the air, and witnesses reported unusual whining noises emanating from the seaplane prior to its wingless plummet. Did a sheared wing cause these sounds and explosions, or vice versa? (The archives at Airliners.net are nothing short of astonishing: Here's a better-days photograph of the actual wing.)

Age, corrosion, engines, cycles. For investigators in Florida, determining a single, specific cause might prove impossible. The public doesn't like ambiguous, layered findings, but in a way we should be thankful for them. The complexity of a given investigation serves to underscore the improbable chain of events and codependent forces needed to cause most crashes in the first place. In the minds of many, the Chalk's disaster will be summed up in a most unfortunate sound bite: The wing fell off. But the truth is all but guaranteed to be more complicated: the effects of a sexagenarian airframe, overly powerful engines, salt-water flying, and thousands of short-haul takeoffs and landings -- some or all of those things brought to bear, together, in one horrible, spar-cracking moment.

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Although it operates only four 17-passenger Mallards (the Florida death toll of 20 included two pilots and a small child seated on a passenger's lap), Chalk's ranks with Holland's KLM and Colombia's Avianca as one of the three eldest carriers in the world. (Qantas, Mexicana and Bolivia's LAB round out a top six.) A storied franchise that once made its living on the Prohibition rum-running corridor between Florida and the Caribbean, Chalk's has existed in several incarnations since 1919, from Chalk's Flying Service to Pan Am Air Bridge. It has survived several ownership changes and at least one bankruptcy. Prior to December's crash, Chalk's was again in perilous financial straits. Its future is even more questionable now.

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Go-Arounds

Re: Terrorist blackmail and the security-industrial complex

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Dear Patrick Smith: The Spanish public are "defiant"? My God, their reaction to the Madrid train bombings, just a few days before the election, was to turn on the Conservative Party that was heading for an electoral win, and vote in the Socialists, who ran on a campaign of pulling Spanish troops from Iraq. All polls showed the Conservatives headed for sure reelection immediately before the attack. Just a few days after, they were tossed out. A sizeable portion of the Spanish voting public concluded that, by switching their votes, they could get al-Qaida to leave them alone. What lesson did the "defiant" Spanish teach the terrorists? Namely, that blowing up trains is a great way to achieve your foreign policy objectives.

-- John Dellaportas

Patrick Smith responds: I was talking in the context of airport and railway security, not the larger geopolitical picture. Still, one could argue that voting out the Conservatives was itself defiant. There's a tendency to confuse defiance with stubbornness and perpetuating a bad situation.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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