MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And today we're going up in the air. We'll kick off this part of the show with our weekly transportation segment, "From A to B"...
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
...where we get the lowdown on planes, trains and automobiles in the D.C. region. Today, we're going to focus on planes and what happens when, for any number of reasons, they fall out of the sky. There are people in Loudoun County, Va., whose job consists of waiting for that very moment. Plane crash investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to respond to any plane crash, anywhere, anytime.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
WAMU transportation reporter, David Schultz, met up with a few of them and brings us this story on what makes these investigators tick.
MR. DAVID SCHULTZ
The one thing plane crash investigators can't possibly live without is a go bag a backpack or suitcase that contains everything they may need in the field. It sits pre-packed in a cabinet at their office or in the trunk of their car or near the door of their home, always there, just in case they get that phone call and have to drop everything and go. And what goes in a go-bag, NTSB crash investigator Dennis Diaz gives us a look. There's the indestructible GPS enabled digital camera.
MR. DENNIS DIAZ
I call it the kinder camera because you can give it to a kid and drop it and do whatever you want with it.
There's the wrench like device with a sharp blade on the end for quick access to a planes insides. They call it the can opener.
You kind of stab it into the wing and start cutting.
There's the pair of heavy duty cargo pants.
They are really great pants.
And then, there's the most important tool of all.
Obviously, you know, your notebook.
Diaz needs a notebook because the core of an NTSB investigators jobs is gathering details and crafting them into a narrative. NTSB investigators are a lot like detectives or pathologists or, for that matter, journalists. They're story tellers.
Well, I'm working on a number of investigations. Right now, I'm working (unintelligible) ...
Their stories began, of course, with the crash itself. The NTSB investigates all incidents on any U.S. civilian aircraft anywhere, that includes huge 747s, tiny single engine prop planes and everything in-between. Even hot air balloons fall under their jurisdiction. When something happens, the NTSB usually finds out through first responders on the scene. Diaz says, when they call, he tries to keep them calm.
They don't deal with accidents every day, we do. So when somebody calls you frantic on the phone, oh, my gosh, this airplane just crashed here. What do we do? Okay.
If the accident's big enough for a launch, as the NTSB calls it, Diaz immediately starts figuring out how to get to the scene of the crash. And that's not always easy.
I've had them where they're literally in somebody's back yard. So you're parking in their driveway and doing the investigation right there. I've had other ones where they're at the top of a mountain. So you have to take a 45 minute ATV ride and then hike in for another two hours to get to the actual accident scene.
Once he finally arrives, Diaz tries to interview anyone who witnessed the crash, preferably at the crash site.
It's very powerful when you can have a witness and talk to them where they were when the accident happened and say, you know, make hand motions and hand gestures. well, the airplane was like this and then it went like this and then it crashed.
And Diaz says, some witnesses are more helpful than others.
Some of the best witnesses you can have are children. Children will say exactly what they saw, whereas an adult will try and fill in those gaps with their own analysis. And they'll say, you know, that guy was doing X, Y, Z, you know, whereas a child would say, the airplane went like this and then went like that.
Diaz doesn't just talk to eyewitnesses, though. Ear witnesses, people who heard the plane crash, are important, too.
You have witnesses that will say, I heard a (makes noise) fly over and thud, I heard it crash. Or bang, crash, you know, I have had all manner, but that can help you in a lot of different ways. That's one data point you have to say the engine was probably running at impact.
And if you know that, you can probably rule out engine failure as a cause of the crash. Along with interviewing the witnesses, Diaz also takes reticules notes on the planes condition. Although he says, sometimes if there's fire involved, there's not much to take notes on.
With the fuel that's onboard that feeds the fire or if it's in the woods and the woods help, you know, with the fire. You'll walk up and it's literally just an outline of an airplane in ash in the ground.
Part of being a plane crash investigator is running towards something everyone is running away from. And yet, even though investigators deal exclusively with the dangers of aviation, many, including Diaz, are recreational pilots themselves.
I think you can look at it from two sides. You can say it is all about the danger. I like to look at it -- it's the prevention side, the accident prevention and safety side of how can we prevent the next accident.
If you look at the numbers, the accident rate for commercial airliners in the U.S., like Delta, Jet Blue and others, is a quarter of what it was 20 years ago. At this point, they're averaging less than one accident per year. The accident rate for private planes, what's known as generally aviation, has come down, too, though by not nearly as much. And the cause of the decrease might not be safer planes or safer pilots, but the economy. When flying becomes less affordable, fewer airplanes are in the sky and therefore fewer accidents occur.
This lack of significant improvement among general aviation worries Tom Haueter, the head of aviation at the NTSB. He says to make it safer, you have to get inside the minds of the pilots themselves.
MR. TOM HAUETER
It's been referred to for many, many years as get home-itus. Somebody's at a destination, they need to get back for a meeting or whatever else. The weather's bad, but gee, I've got to get someplace. And they push it when they actually know better.
Get home-itus, is particularly wide spread during the holiday season, when aviation travel spikes as does the accident rate. Veteran crash investigator Brian Rayner says, when everyone else is off of work, the NTSB is busier than ever.
MR. BRIAN RAYNER
Several years in a row, I had to either get up from the Thanksgiving dinner table or leave right after dinner. It was -- I was just -- almost a Thanksgiving certainty that I would launch on Thanksgiving.
Crash investigators are on call for a month at a time, six months out of the year, sometimes, more. Investigating plane crashes for a living is tough and as I talk with Diaz, I start to wonder why anyone would actually want to do it.
Yes, 747 (unintelligible) ...
Then Diaz takes me down the hall from his office to a cavernous airplane hangar where I'm confronted with a shattered 747 jumbo jet. This is what remains of TWA flight 800. On July 17, 1996, it exploded in mid air off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., killing all 230 people aboard. The NTSB took all the pieces of the wreckage they could recover and put them back together as best they could to create a training tool for new investigators.
Diaz says coming in here reminds him why he makes the sacrifices he does.
Many times, you know, you look at it and it is so sobering and it's not only an important piece of investigative training material, but it's almost a monument.
In his own way, Diaz also builds monuments. They're the stories he painstakingly crafts with the hope that knowing why a tragic event happened can prevent it from every happening again. I'm David Schultz.
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