Friday Bag o’ Crashes

Russian-Dash-cams-22When they didn’t immediately locate the pilot of the Massachusetts Air Guard F-15 that crashed in West Virginia Wednesday morning, I figured he was dead. An eyewitness reported seeing a parachute, which led to hopes the pilot had ejected and survived, but since there’d been no radio contact with him I assumed he’d either been killed during the ejection or hadn’t ejected at all.

Eyewitness reports are often wrong, and this was no exception. About 30 hours after investigators arrived at the crash site they found the body. There had been no ejection.

I investigated an F-15 crash in Alaska in 1985. Talk about remote locations, we didn’t find the crash site for three days, and once initial responders helicoptered in, it took another half a day to locate the pilot’s body. He hadn’t tried to eject either. The pilot from this week’s accident graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1996, just a year before I retired, so I didn’t know him. Nevertheless he was a brother and I’m sorry he’s gone. I always wonder when fighter pilots ride it into the ground, as this one apparently did. Was he conscious? Did he think he could recover until it was too late to eject? The investigators will try to answer those questions, just as I tried to answer similar ones in accidents I investigated.

Going back to a civil aviation accident I wrote about in June, the Gulfstream executive jet that crashed on takeoff at Hanscomb Field near Boston, the NTSB is still investigating and trying to determine causes. Initially it looked as if the pilots had tried to take off with the gust lock engaged, a device that’s supposed to lock the aircraft’s ailerons, rudder, and elevators to prevent wind damage on the ground, but there were contrary indications. One, the cockpit gust lock control, a lever behind the throttles, was found in the unlocked position. Two, the gust lock is supposed to also restrict throttle movement so that you can’t advance them more than 6% above idle—had it been engaged, there’s no way the Gulfstream should have been able to accelerate to takeoff speed before running off the end of the runway and crashing into a ditch.

According to the linked article, the NTSB is still focused on the gust lock, and the makers of the Gulfstream have issued advisories to pilots and operators about the proper use of the gust lock and the importance of following pre-takeoff checklist procedures. As I speculated in June, there might be problems with the gust lock, and Gulfstream has apparently found a failure mode where the gust lock will still freeze the controls but allow full throttle movement. As for finding the gust lock control in the unlocked position, it’s quite possible the pilots moved the control lever when they realized they couldn’t rotate the nose at takeoff speed, but it was too late to salvage the situation. I’m keeping an eye out for the final report.

Moving on to auto racing, a subject I was recently counseled not to speculate about, I saw on ESPN this morning that NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will be racing again this weekend. He’s the driver who ran over and killed another driver at a sprint car event earlier this month. The investigation is ongoing, but as I expected there’s no indication Mr. Stewart will be found at fault. Money talks, and Stewart earns a lot of money for some very powerful men. Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect NASCAR hopes the investigation will be inconclusive and leave open the suspicion that Stewart intentionally hit the other driver. Why? Because it’ll draw fans to the track. Who knows, Stewart might do it again!

I know, I know, I’m a terrible person for taking such a dim view of people, but my god aren’t we a pack of jabbering monkeys? Have you ever watched Russian dash cam videos on YouTube? Talk about curling your lip at mankind, those videos’ll induce it. We’re lucky we’ve survived this long as a species. And if you were wondering what’s the justification for the inset graphic at the top of this post, now you know.

On that cheerful note, I wish you a happy Labor Day weekend. If you drive or fly (or sail, or take the train, or ride your bike), please be careful, because you’re my brothers and sisters too!

© 2014, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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