Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inside A Plane Crash

With the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” last month, and the plane crash just a few days ago in Buffalo, there has been lots of media attention on flying, crashes and all the hype surrounding these things.

Much of the media is hype – which is so sad and pathetic, as it need not be. But today’s blog isn’t about all the hype, it’s to dispel some of it instead.

Way back in the day when I was a journalist, I covered the occasional downing of a plane. I even covered the crash of a hot air balloon – though the pilots to this day still refuse to admit that it was a “crash” as it managed to touch down without incident.

The media does fine job covering these things – just they get caught up in all the action and create a lot of excitement where none really is needed.

You’ve probably heard that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were called in to investigate. Often the media plays this up, but this is standard procedure, even before the terror attacks of 9-11. The FBI and the CIA will work with the American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) until it is completely ruled out that the crash was caused due to malicious intent.

The NTSB is in charge of investigating all major accidents involving any form of transportation – they look into railway accidents, major vehicle crashes, even waterway accidents – as well as airline accidents. Their job is to painstakingly piece together what happened, so that future accidents do not happen. Often, they work with many different local groups – usually first responders like police, ambulance, fire and National Guard/military, to collect every little piece of the wreckage. Then they will, on many instances, try and put them all together, essentially re-creating the aircraft, to find out what happened.

If the NTSB finds sufficient evidence that something external to the flight crew, air traffic control, and the aircraft itself, caused the crash, they may look further into the possibility of terrorism. If they find sufficient grounds to lead to a possibility of terrorism, then the FBI and CIA may take a more active role.

The FBI will take a lead role if the plane was brought down by someone within the States – they investigate all major crimes committed by Americans. The CIA will take the lead role if the cause of the crash appears to be caused by a non-American person or group of persons – they investigate all international crimes against America. Though, in the case of terrorism, the CIA must pass on any crimes to the somewhat new Department of Homeland Security – which was created after 9-11 to investigate and act on all acts of terrorism against the States.

Usually, the FBI, CIA and the Department of Homeland Security will work together if there is any chance of terrorism in a plane crash.

But in most cases, the NTSB finds it to either be mechanical failure, pilot/flight crew error, or a lack of communication between the air traffic controllers and the flight crew (air traffic controller error), so the FBI, CIA and other terrorism investigators eventually pack up and leave, so that the NTSB can continue to figure out what really happened.

The media will also make a big deal about the search for the so-called “black box.” There are actually two of these on all planes, and neither of them are black.

These two bright orange metallic boxes record the last 30-minutes of everything that happened on the flight. One records all the mechanical information – the altitude, airspeed, flight angle, condition of the engines, fluid levels and what all the instruments were indicating for the last 30-minutes of operation. This is called the Flight Data Recorder, as it literally records everything the plane itself was doing for 30-minutes.

The other bright orange box records all the communication which took place among the flight crew and anything said over the radio – be it to an air traffic controller, an engineer at the company’s headquarters, or someone else. This is the Cockpit Voice Recorder, which is used to determine how the flight crew was flying the plane at the time of the crash.

Finding these recorders is crucial to solving airline crashes, as they tell the story from both the flight crew’s perspective and that of the mechanical operation of the plane. That’s part of why the media hypes the search and later find of these “black boxes.”

Because of their importance, these flight recorders are designed to withstand severe conditions – they are built to handle an impact with land or water up to 3,600 G-force and temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius. They each have their own transponder, which can continue transmitting locating information for up to 30-days.

Because of their design, in most crashes, the “black boxes” are recovered and the information contained within them is useable. Only on the rarest of cases have these things either never been found, or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be used to re-construct the crash.

And, you’ll also hear a lot of speculation based on what the “black boxes” recorded. It can take some time – in some instances years – before all the information from the crash site, the victims, and the recorders provides the final absolute answer as to what happened. Regardless of what the media reports, until the NTSB releases a report of findings on the crash – nothing is official.

1 comment:

  1. It is important to keep ourselves updated.Familiarization in control system designs and control methods is an act of being responsible.Thanks for sharing this information.Good Day!