I will apologize now. This is going to be a rant. I’ve waited a few days to write this, but I feel that it still needs to be said.
I was on a layover in Narita, Japan on the day that the FedEx airplane crashed. I saw the crash over and over on the Japanese stations and repeatedly received internet/YouTube links to the television videos and American media coverage. I had seen the accident discussed online when little real information was available. I notice that the accident coverage has disappeared as the media moved on to the next headline.
I am, as usual, totally amazed at the lack of knowledge concerning aviation that permeates the media in the United States. You would think that after 100 years of aviation, in a country that relies on aviation to conduct it’s business, the news media would have some basic knowledge of the subject. Instead, they rely on ‘aviation experts’ to provide them with the commentary, the ‘sound bites’ that punctuate their inaccurate stories. There is a manic rush to get something, anything, on the air or in print before competing media outlets. This leads over and over again to the dissemination of inane, inaccurate and partial information which slants stories in whichever direction the ‘experts’ are leaning.
Then, if you really want to witness ignorance at it’s finest, take some time to access the YouTube videos associated with an aviation accident and, after watching the video, read the comments that appear below the video player window. It makes you want to require a license to purchase a keyboard.
I was actually asked via email and social media contacts to take photos or videos of the crash site and post them with commentary. I can tell you right now, I will NEVER post those types of photos. As for my commentary, here it is.
I have never seen an aviation accident where the individuals involved got up and intended to die that day, or be seriously hurt or bend their aircraft. What caused this accident? I don’t know. Did the two pilots flying the plane make a terribly wrong decision in continuing the approach to the runway? I can’t answer that because I don’t know the decisions that they had made to arrive at the beginning of that photo clip that all of us have seen. Would I have made a go-around rather than continue the approach? I don’t know. I don’t know the weather or wind conditions they were experiencing, nor do I know what the approach looked like from inside the plane or how that view compared to other approaches I may have made to that runway. It is very easy, as you sit in front of a screen watching the video, to say there is no way you would have continued that approach… because you now know what the result would be if you did. (Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘rewind’ to a time before those decisions we wish we hadn’t made?) Was there some mechanical malfunction that caused the accident. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t know. Is there some inherent design flaw in the DC-10/MD-11 that caused the crash? I don’t know. I’ve never flown the aircraft type, but it seems to me that the DC-10/MD-11 has safely flown hundreds of thousands of hours. Yes, it has had some accidents that appear similar to this accident, but if the existence of similar accidents points to a design flaw then every automobile on the highway has a design flaw because we are crashing them the same way every year. Was the crash caused by windshear? I don’t know. Windshear has shown the ability in the past to cause aircraft crashes, but without intimate knowledge of the conditions at the end of runway 34L at Narita at the time the aircraft was landing, I can’t answer if windshear was a factor in this particular accident. For all you media pundit, aviation-expert talking heads out there, I hereby give you free and unrestricted editorial use of the title to this article (the title only) to be used at any time during your commentary concerning any future aviation events. You will garner more loyal followers by admitting that you don’t know the answer and returning later with an update based upon research than if you keep your mouth moving with your brain disengaged trying to fill your sound bite to the brim and assure that you are called again when an expert’s opinion is desired.
When the accident investigation board releases their final report we will be given detailed information about every phase of the flight. We will know the experience levels of both crew members, what they had to eat before the flight and how much sleep they had during the days before the accident. We will know the serial number of the aircraft and it’s maintenance history and we will have all the information about the weather conditions that is available. Yet, with all the information at their disposal, all the knowledge of past accidents and the expertise of the members of the board, the final report will list a PROBABLE cause, not THE cause. The only two people who MIGHT be able to explain what happened are no longer with us. The chances are probably pretty good that even if they had survived the accident they would not be able to explain exactly what happened and why. With luck, the accident board will be able to identify the chain of events and decisions that resulted in the aircraft arriving at the start of that video clip. Hopefully we will be able to analyze that chain and then be able to identify where a link may have been broken and the accident prevented. That is how we learn from accidents, in the analysis of the the chain of decisions or actions that brought about an undesired result. We study accidents so that we can identify those links and break them before they lead us to a chain of events we were not planning to have happen that day.