Airplane crashes like the one in Kentucky always hold a special interest for me. I was once an aircraft mechanic. First, in the Air Force, then as a civilian working for the Navy, and finally, as a licensed mechanic for Comair, the airline involved in the latest crash. When planes go down, I follow the news with interest because I find the science and technology fascinating and familiar and the impact on the business interesting.
However, the biggest reason are the lives involved.
A flight crew from my Air Force base met their end when lightning hit their C-130 and blew approximately 24 feet from one wing. The plane went down, leaving a large, smoking hole and five families grieving the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Back at the base, the maintenance Crew Chief who cared for the airplane daily was hit personally.
He took the crash quite hard, especially during the days when no one knew the cause of the crash. He stayed awake at night wondering if something he had done – some seemingly inconsequential detail – might have killed those five men. To “stay busy”, he requested to be assigned to cleaning up the debris for the investigation. Shortly before he left, I talked to him and he explained that it was his responsibility to be there and to answer questions. But, I knew the real reason – he wanted to answer the question of whether he had some part in the crash.
Like me, he knew the members of the young crew. We’d both traveled around the world with them, sharing stories and beers and hotel rooms in far-off locations. We knew the names of their children and that the loadmaster had recently broken up with his wife. We shared our lives in a deep way. We knew them as husbands, fathers, and sons because they were our family too.
The young airman’s experience cleaning up the debris didn’t soothe his fears. While pulling debris from a pile of twisted and melted metal, he found the remnants of a deployed parachute. Investigators determined that at least one member of the crew had enough time to don the parachute and try to jump before the plane hit the ground. Analysis showed the parachute had opened in a doorway, pulled the wearer out, and caught on the fuselage before the crash. Investigators could never determine who the crewman wearing the parachute had been.
Cleaning up the debris also didn’t offer a quick technological answer. It took several months to determine that lightning had been the culprit, but investigators were never able to determine why the wing exploded. After all, lightening regularly hits airplanes and the damage usually amounts to no more than a little scorched paint or a small hole.
C-130s of the day were known to have small leaks in the fuel tanks inside the wings. It’s not unusual and the amount of leaking fuel appeared to be small enough that an explosion should never have occurred. Analysts tried for several months to replicate the explosion and finally gave up. They chalked up the official cause to bad weather with a probable cause a lightning strike. Some of the remains were never recovered and the airplane’s young mechanic continued to worry until the day he left the Air Force – he probably continues to worry today.
For my part, I don’t worry, but I do think of the incident when airplanes crash. I think about how long the crew had to think about the crash before they ploughed into the ground. I wonder if they spent it screaming or praying as you often hear on cockpit voice recorders. I wonder what they were thinking before the ground grew large in the windshield. Did they think of ways to save themselves? Their families? Or, did they just go blank in a panic?
I even thought about these things when the terrorists rammed the World Trade Center. I wondered what went through their minds as they purposely sacrificed themselves to a cause I didn’t really understand. Did they think of the innocent lives they were taking? Were they scared? Had they come to peace with the act and were they waiting patently to meet Allah?
The story was the same for the recent crash. I used to work for Comair and it was an airport I’d flown into and out of many times. I could see the hill where they came to their final rest in my mind and implicitly understood the runway intersection and what they probably looked like in the morning darkness. I could feel myself crunched in behind them, on a jumpseat, watching their hands on familiar knobs and buttons, watching the routine of just another takeoff turn into something terribly, terribly wrong. But part of me also skipped back nearly 25 years to another crew on another airplane and what their last moments on Earth may have held.
As I vividly see myself sitting in both airplanes, I still wonder about all the same questions. And, the answer is always the same…I don’t know.