The National Transportation Safety Board determined that a jammed valve in the rudder control system caused the crash of USAir Flight 427.
The crash a decade ago of USAir Flight 427 killed 132 passengers and crew, victimized countless others and made air travel safer for millions of future passengers.
"I can't think of one accident that had more impact on the NTSB, on the aviation industry, and more importantly, on how families of all disasters are treated worldwide than the Pittsburgh accident," said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board during the Flight 427 investigation.
The NTSB gained credibility by solving the mysterious crash and successfully demanding a billion-dollar fix to prevent morecrashes. Since then, the federal safety agency has commanded more safety improvements in other types of planes.
"Nothing can replace those who were lost in that accident," said Hall,
now a transportation safety and security consultant in Washington, D.C.
"But hopefully, their loved ones can look back at that tragedy and know,
as a result of that event, possibly hundreds or thousands of lives may
have been saved over the lifetime of that airplane, which is still the
world's most popular aircraft."
"There's more than a million people who ride in 737s daily," said Capt.
John Cox, a US Airways pilot who chairs the Air Line Pilots
Association's air-safety group. "All of those people are in a safer
"It was kind of a tough call to say the aircraft is really unsafe. But
it became obvious that this needed a redesign," said Tom Haueter, the
NTSB's lead investigator. "It caused a complete rudder redesign on the
737 series of aircraft -- it was almost unprecedented."
The ruling irked those in the industry opposing the flawed rudder explanation. For years, Boeing argued Flight 427 crashed because its pilot, Capt. Pete Germano, did not properly handle a wind disruption created by another jet.
Under pressure, Boeing finally implemented a billion-dollar change to the 737. New planes were built with what amounts to two rudder control units. If one accidentally jammed, the other could take over. Planes already flying were modified to prevent jams.
"At that time, it was the longest NTSB investigation," Hall said. "It started out with Boeing essentially denying for three years that a mechanical malfunction on the world's most popular jetliner could occur to what essentially was an admission by Boeing and, more importantly, a billion-dollar correction of that flaw."
Boeing would not comment for this story.
Leading the charge
Other troubling airliner crashes followed Flight 427 in the 1990s. Hall and the NTSB pursued those with the same vigor as Flight 427 and called for more safety changes on other types of planes. Solving the Flight 427 mystery gave the NTSB respect and teeth to enact change.
"To me, that was the accident that really formed me as a chairman of the NTSB and, I think, in many ways, transformed the NTSB into probably a more effective safety advocate," said Hall, who remained on the NTSB board for nearly eight years.
"Pittsburgh was the first major aviation disaster I handled as a chairman," Hall said. "I think the experiences out of that disaster and that investigation provided a blueprint for me in terms of how I wanted to hopefully impact the profile of the NTSB and approach disasters."
"In some cases, I was confrontational. That was what was required to change the culture of both the FAA and the airline industry in regard to safety. I think you can look now at the safety record of the industry and I think you would say those accidents in the 1990s really changed the safety culture of the aviation industry."
"It really validated the NTSB process because it was a very difficult accident to solve," said Cox, of the pilots association.
Help for families
The crash of Flight 427 also changed the way airlines and governments deal with the families of those killed.
Flight 427 families were herded into an airport lounge at Pittsburgh International. USAir employees told them there was an accident with fatalities. Then, they left. Six hours elapsed before families learned the truth.
Through the night, nobody told the relatives who or how many died. USAir denied health counselors access to the relatives and friends. Later, distraught people were allowed to drive home from the airport. Distressed airline employees were not permitted to seek counseling.
"As the anniversary of the 427 tragedy approaches, our thoughts are with
the families of the passengers and crew," said US Airways spokesman
David Castelveter. "Out of respect to their memory, we are going to
limit our public comments to extending our sympathy and offering our
support to the efforts of remembrance and reflection."
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