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Freewrite Friday: When Airplanes Crash

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

B-1 static display just about a mile from my mom and dad's house at the Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota Air and Space Museum

B-1 static display just about a mile from my mom and dad's house at the Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota Air and Space Museum

When Airplanes Crash

Apart from the beautiful red-headed Miss Gallagher, my third-grade teacher who broke my heart when she got married toward the end of that school year, do you know who else I also had a major league crush on for lots and lots of years? Who could turn the world on with her smile? Who could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? If I went on and on and then said, “Mary Tyler Moore,” would you guffaw and belly laugh and chortle? Well, even if you would, it’s true nevertheless. She was great with Dick Van Dyke and even better on her own in Minneapolis. Unrequited love as a school boy times two, I guess. And so it goes.

I really think I’d like to visit the MTM statue in Minneapolis someday.

You're Gonna Make It After All...

I learned last week of the passing of an old friend, a fellow B-1 pilot I used to work with at Ellsworth AFB. He was also my boss at one point. I mentioned all that already, I know, but then this week I talked to another old mutual friend with whom I also used to fly back in the day, a guy named Sniper. After finding a note about an aircraft Safety Investigation he worked on, Sniper went to reach out to the one B-1 friend who wrote the note to him, found out that he’d passed; then he went to reach out to another B-1 friend—that’s Vader—and found that he’d also passed. Next thing you know, we are connecting up on Facebook and over text because, like me I think, he doesn’t want to let another day go by and have another old friend move on to the next life without letting these people know they mean something to him. His words, not mine. He said he’d started calling and connecting on Facebook with people that “meant something to him.” Well, that certainly meant something to me. We laughed and laughed when we talked on the phone the other day. My wife wanted to know how we could have so much to talk about when we haven’t seen each other since 1993. I told her I didn’t think there was enough time left in a lifetime to get completely caught up with old Sniper. He is a good man, a man of honesty, integrity, no bullshit, no politics. If the card was a spade, he’d call it a spade. If it was a heart, it would be so named. I don’t think I have any higher praise to lavish on someone than to say that. Integrity, service, excellence all meant something—nay, mean something, to him. That is a common, life-long bond he and I share. I do not know if he feels the same way about me, but that is how I feel about him. As my dad used to say: he’s one of the good guys. And Dad also used to say, “The good guys get the breaks, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.” I don’t know if that always holds true, of course, but I liked that he said it all the time. It kind of made you want to be considered one of the good guys, for sure.

Safety investigations and reports are conducted and written solely to prevent future mishaps. Legal investigations are conducted for all other purposes. If initiated, criminal investigations take precedence over safety investigations until criminal activity, natural causes, and suicide have been ruled out as possible causes of damage, injury, or death.

AFI 91-204, Paragraph 1.1, 27 April 2018

While chatting with Sniper and talking about old friends—like Master and Vader and a few others—we got onto the topic of politics and its play in safety reports in the USAF. It’s a pretty long, sordid kind of thing, but the long and short of it is right here: many aircraft accidents in the USAF are the result of pilot error. Many aircraft accidents—most likely most aircraft accidents, whether military or civilian—are the result of what is labeled pilot error. Especially nowadays when aircraft are usually much more stable and reliable than in the early days of aviation. I did say ‘usually’ and ‘most,’ mind you, because we still have things like the 737 Max tragedy and fiasco that happened not too long ago. Tragic because so many people lost their lives. Fiasco because the tragedy could have been prevented if the equipment weren’t faulty, or if the pilots simply had been trained to understand precisely how the equipment worked. In terms of blood and treasure, this was a costly manufacturer mistake: 346 people died in two separate crashes.

- 29 October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 – 189 souls perished

- 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 – 157 souls perished

Each of these aircraft cost a cool $121.6 million or so, but the real $ is so much bigger than that when one considers the 346 people on board these airplanes, their earning potential, their immeasurable value to their families and friends. Money can’t buy or replace any of that. And lord knows how much money Boeing is going to pay out in lawsuits from families, aircraft operators, and so on and so forth.

So…when, in the course of investigating an aircraft accident, things like politics or being generous to the family names of the dead who were piloting the aircraft, those things really need to take a back seat to what actually happened and why it happened. Indeed, at least in the Air Force, the stated purpose for a Safety Investigation Board in the wake of an aircraft accident (whether fatalities are involved or not) is to prevent future recurrence of similar incidents. In explaining the difference between SIBs and AIBs in the USAF, the article here explains the purpose of the SIB as follows:

“Safety investigations take priority over accident investigations because of the need to quickly assess the impact on a weapons system's ability to fulfill its national defense role. In addition, safety investigators are given wide-ranging freedoms to assist in quickly moving to conclusion. For example, SIBs have the authority to take testimony under promise of confidentiality and to deliberate on causes and recommendations without bearing a substantial burden of proof. The SIB's conclusions must only reflect the best professional judgement of the board members. SIB members are specifically selected because of their intimate familiarity with the maintenance, operation, employment roles and mission of the mishap weapons system.”

Note that this statement—which accurately (though perhaps not completely) reflects my understanding of how SIBs should work, by the way (and I was safety-trained, served as Chief of Safety at Ellsworth AFB at one point in my career, conducted my fair share of aircraft accident investigations)—points out two things that I think bear further discussion and emphasis:

- SIBs need to quickly assess the impact on a weapons system’s ability to fulfill its national defense role

- SIB conclusions must only reflect the best professional judgement of the board members

At the end of the day, what these statements mean to me are that there is no room for bullshit or politics. You have to find out and then say what happened. In no uncertain terms. That said, you should be able to believe that if there is an aircraft crash and someone or some number of someones is killed, and the jet in question is not immediately and universally grounded worldwide, there’s a fair to middling chance that human error was somehow involved in the crash. Read that and digest it for what it’s worth, now, and don’t quote me as saying it’s always pilot error when they don’t ground the jets. I didn’t say that, specifically, and wouldn’t ever say that specifically.

Sadly, sometimes it's so patently obvious what happened, there is no operationally compelling reason to ground the fleet...

I know in the B-1 world, the first Class A mishap involving loss of life was a crash that occurred during B-1A testing at Edwards. Cause of the crash? Pilot error. The pilots were testing fuel movement and center of gravity changes and the effects these changes in CG would have on flight characteristics. The crew failed to move the fuel so the CG was in a compatible spot before sweeping the wings. As the wings moved forward, this put the aircraft’s CG out of the aft limit, and the aircraft then departed controlled flight and crashed. The crew ejected, but the pilot in the right seat died in the crash. He was actually partially “blamed” for his own death because he failed to strap himself into his seat properly. The A-model B-1 had a capsule ejection system (as opposed to ACES II ejection seats in the B-1B), which malfunctioned and did not cushion the capsule’s parachute landing properly. These two compounding problems caused fatal injuries to the test pilot.

There was no fleet to ground at that time and in any case it’s not likely the Service would have grounded the fleet anyway, as it would have been very simple to determine in short order the cause of that crash, and it was not a mechanical or structural failure.

When, in September of 1987, a B-1 crashed near LaJunta, Colorado while out on a routine low altitude training mission, however, the USAF grounded the B-1 fleet right away, and then instituted flight restrictions for quite some time after, until modifications were made to the aircraft to allow safe operation in that low-altitude, high-speed flight regime. Sadly, three of six crewmembers perished in that crash. Two of them were sitting in seats that had no ejection capability—instructor seats situated between the two pilot and two WSO ejection seats. There simply was not time for these two gentlemen to stow their seats, don a parachute, blow the bottom bailout hatch and roll out of the aircraft into the slipstream so they could deploy a parachute. Instead, they went in with the pilot who was sitting in the right front seat of the airplane. Though he had tried to eject, the activation sequence to his seat malfunctioned and he was also forced to ride it in. The B-1 in question was operating at high subsonic speed at approximately 600 feet off the ground when it was struck in the right wing glove area by a migrating pelican. The pelican ripped a hole in the aircraft, punctured fuel and hydraulic lines, and set in motion a series of catastrophic systems failures that ultimately led to a loss of aircraft control, and loss of life for three American Airmen.

Video and news story that got a couple things right: a B-1 crashed and three people died...

It isn’t just because the aircraft cost $283 million per copy (or $400 million, as suggested in the news video above) in 1985 dollars that this story needed to be told accurately. This story needed to be told accurately for all kinds of other obvious reasons, too. Not least of which is the fact that we, as crewmembers, need to feel like the craft we are operating is safe, is capable, is going to bring us home alive. I always felt that way, even when I was departing my first assignment at a B-52 base in the UP of Michigan to head off to B-1 training and all my peers and superiors—yes, even my “responsible, role-model” bosses—were telling me I was heading off to aviate in a “flying death trap.”

SIBs have the power and authority to cut through all that: they can get to the truth by offering confidentiality to involved crewmembers. This is a very powerful tool, and is used often in aircraft accident investigations in the Service. In this case, I am very confident—was very confident back then, too, despite protestations to the contrary from members of my previous community in the B-52—that the USAF did all it could to determine the cause of the accident, and also to prevent future similar recurrence of those type accidents. Indeed, for more than a year after that, and during the time I was training in the aircraft, we B-1 aviators were restricted from low-altitude, high-speed training flights, and we also eventually moved to a point where the only people allowed on the airplane while it was in flight—ever—were people occupying ejection seats. This made all of us feel much better about our individual safety. Additionally, and not trivially, all B-1 aircraft were modified in the wing glove area with a layover of Kevlar material that was designed to prevent a bird strike from penetrating the wing root area and blowing all the gas and hydraulic lines located in close proximity to the afterburning engines. This Kevlar design was supposedly engineered to withstand a strike from a bird weighing 20 lbs. or more. Indeed, had the aircraft involved in the low altitude incident in 1987 been modified in such a manner, it would have created a different outcome for the six aircrew members on board.

In the course of my nearly 2800 hours flying the B-1 bomber, I shut down engines multiple times, hit birds more than once, had my copilot’s ejection seat catch on fire, suffered all manner of hydraulic failures, and several other things too numerous to mention…I never once feared that I wasn’t flying a safe aircraft. This SIB conducted all the way back in September/October 1987 saw to that, exactly as the concept was designed.

When I was talking to Sniper the other morning, though, he told me that he’d been involved in a B-1 bomber fatal crash investigation at the very tippy tail end of his Air Force career where the truth was almost overshadowed by politics. It seems that some general officer muckity muck or other didn’t want the good name of one of his boys besmirched, didn’t want the words “pilot error” attached to his legacy, and so an effort was made to massage the truth. In the end, this is really how Sniper came to reach out to me last week: The guy he was trying to call first, Master, has long since passed on after a losing battle with cancer. Seems Sniper came across a note from Master from back in the days not long after Sniper retired. Master had been around the final aircraft crash outbriefing where it was hotly debated on what to include in the final report and what not to include in the final report of the B-1 accident on which Sniper had served as the B-1 bomber subject matter expert. Seems that truth won out in the final analysis, and Master wanted Sniper to know that the latter’s honesty, integrity, tenacity, and selflessness had carried sway. The report was written to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And that’s the way it should be. Here’s hoping it’s that way more times than it’s not, anyway.

And for some reason all this came to mind today, as did Mary Tyler Moore and some more stuff I won’t delve into this morning. Maybe next Friday...

Meantime, hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Be well and be safe.

© 2020 greg cain