Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Close Doesn't Cut It

By Mark W. Danielson
Airline travel can be interesting. At times, I have to ride in the back to start a trip away from my home base. Recently, I met an interesting man I’ll call Ray on such a flight out of Denver. His story reiterates that everyone has at least one story to tell, and this one’s a doozy. It begins with him flying aboard United Express from Denver to Durango. Unfortunately, his plane never arrived.
Before I delve into his story, I should present two sides of the much debated issue on pilot qualifications. Ray’s incident occurred over thirty years ago, but little has changed within the industry since then. The fact remains that the most experienced pilots fly for the major airlines while the lesser experienced pilots fly commuters, hoping to one day fly for the majors. Co-pilot/first officers with minimal experience must still pass the same check rides as those with the major airlines. Having said that, not all pilots are created equal.
Now, back to the story. At the time, United Express was flying a twin-engine propeller airplane called the Convair 580, which was a solid design and carried approximately sixty people. There were approximately forty people aboard Ray’s flight. En route, the plane developed a fuel problem that affected one of the engines. For whatever reason, the co-pilot never looked up the procedure. Instead, she and the captain winged it, but guessed wrong, which resulted in an engine fire. During the process of mishandling their emergency, the crew shut down the good engine. Soon after, the plane crash-landed in a corn field. Remarkably, no one was killed. Even more remarkable was the flight crew deserted their passengers and escaped through the cockpit windows.

Ray and a fellow co-worker were seated in the very back of the plane, so when the plane came to rest, they opened the rear doors to escape. However, since the nose wheel broke off, the tail was too high to evacuate through these exits. When Ray turned around, he was astonished to see all of the passengers still strapped in their seats as though in a trance. Seeing fuel leaking from the aircraft and fearing the plane would soon burst in flames, Ray and his co-worker took it upon themselves to evacuate everyone from the aircraft. Neither Ray nor his co-worker received any recognition for their efforts. Instead, Ray endured years of pain before he received word that he had broken his back in the crash. It took five years for the airline to reimburse Ray’s company for his injuries. Ironically, the airline’s most damning evidence that won Ray’s law suit was the partial refund he received for his flight. You see, it was pro-rated from Denver to the point short of the original destination, AKA, the cornfield.

Compare this to US Airways Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew who did everything right when they ditched their Airbus in then Hudson River. I’d like to think that every crew would handle an emergency as well. The bottom line is the captain is always responsible for the safety of his/her passengers and crew, regardless of the circumstances. That responsibility comes with wearing four stripes.

Some might want to compare Ray’s experience to the recent commuter crash in Buffalo. In this case, the first officer was relatively new and the captain made some poor decisions. While it is easy to draw parallels between these crashes, every emergency is unique. Following the Buffalo crash, the FAA has been considering numerous rule changes that would reduce pilot fatigue. While I would like to think Ray’s United Express crew did some jail time, the reality is they probably just lost their jobs. It’s also important to realize that millions of people fly every year without incident, thus mishaps such as those I’ve described are extremely rare. These days, pilot jobs are so competitive that weak performance is not tolerated. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on any commercial airliner, regardless of its size. Having said that, getting people close to their destination doesn’t count as an on-time arrival. Fly safe.


Sheila Deeth said...

Fascinating story. Sometimes the pilots are heroes too, and then they deserve medals.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Sheila, but our real heros today are our veterans. Sadly, most won't have the holiday off, and too many are deployed overseas. I wish they could all come home.

As for pilots, I'd like to think that all are capable of handling any emergency. If they happened to be named as heroes, that's great.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I shudder to think of all the small commuter planes I've flown in, landing on ice covered runways and one near Neah Bay, Washington, that looked like a narrow, cracked sidewalk with weeds growing up through the cracks. That one was a single engine, three-seater that flew over the Olympic Mountains, out of Seattle. My first plane belly dived onto the runway at Stockton, California, when the wheels refused to descend. Needless to say, I'm a white-knuckled flyer. :-)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'd like to add that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who pilots a plane, but I much prefer major airlines. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, your luck is worse than mine. In the 44 years I've been flying, the worst I've had was losing power in two single engine aircraft. Of those, I left one in a field with no damage and was able to get the other back to the runway.

As an airline pilot, I follow the rules to the best of my ability. It's sad that the actions of a few make headlines that tarnish the rest of our reputations. I assure you that the majority of airline pilots are quite competent, and that includes the less experienced ones.

Jaden Terrell said...

Mark, what an interesting look into a side of flying most of us never see. May we all have such adventures only vicariously.

Anonymous said...

What a story! Many thanks for the post.
Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

I tried to get a trash can to trash those stupid Anonymous comments but somebody has changed the procedure. ???

Pat Browning