National Geographic : 1977 Aug
The problem, one safety expert explained, is that hull losses-the trade term for airliner wipeouts-and suits resulting from passenger fatalities cost more than bicycles. The takeoff collision of two Boeing 747's last March at Tenerife in the Canary Islands (pages 228-9) took 580 lives. Insurance settlement for the aircraft was 63 million dollars; lawsuits filed by relatives of passengers amount to billions. This will have a major effect on future insur ance rates applied to carriers. Nightmare Flight Tests Pilot's Skill Accidents. Accidents. What about all those millions of uneventful flights and happy landings? To experience one, I joined Capt. Lynden Duescher on the flight deck of a United Airlines 747 in San Francisco. Strapping myself into a seat behind the captain, I listened as he and his two crew members, like shoppers in a supermarket, completed their checklist: "Fuel-main pump on; hydraulic pumps- auto, normal... ; warning lights-out." "Let's go," said Duescher, advancing the throttles. The whine of the engines surged into a reassuring roar as we sped down the runway. But we were no sooner airborne than one of the engines began to lose power. Next, a section of the wing flaps refused to retract. When the landing gear came up, fire erupted in one of the wheel wells. With the coolness born of long command, Duescher directed his crew in procedures that restored order to the malfunctioning air craft. We climbed to 24,000 feet, where the cabin-pressurization system failed. We donned oxygen masks as Duescher began an emer gency descent to 10,000 feet. Problem rec tified, he returned to altitude and resolutely proceeded to his destination, Chicago. En route, a radio receiver failed and flight instruments went haywire. The number-two engine caught fire and was shut down. On ap proach to the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, oil pressure dropped on number-three engine. It too was shut down. Duescher faced a delicate situation, an approach with only two engines functioning. He made a fine landing. No passengers deplaned, because there were no passengers. We had never left San Francisco; we had never arrived in Chicago. In truth, we had never left the ground at United's Flight Training Center in Denver. We were in a flight simulator, a boxy con traption on spiderlike legs. Inside was a fully instrumented 747 flight deck. A TV tube, masterminded by a computer, displayed the world outside with astonishing fidelity. The simulator's hydraulic legs flexed to counter feit the feel of flight. Only the sweat on Due scher's face was real. Simulator exercises, part of the "recurrent training" that the Federal Aviation Adminis tration requires of airline pilots every six months, keeps emergency skills honed. With computer technology, simulators have be come so realistic that the FAA permits the air lines to use them instead of airplanes for most training. The idea has paid off. The last fatal training accident, which occurred during a landing approach, was in 1972. The actual flights I made with various air lines-Air France, Allegheny, Continental, Pan American, and United-were routine. I was hoping to encounter a foul-weather land ing approach, but the weather did not cooper ate. Finally I got the point: There's not that much bad weather. Kudos for Jet Age Technology The prime reason for the steady decrease in air-carrier accidents, National Trans portation Safety Board experts told me, is that marvelous machine, the jet airplane. Jet engines perform for phenomenal periods with routine maintenance. There's also "redundancy." This means that when an instrument or a system mal functions, there's at least one more standing by to take its place. The Boeing 747 has four independent hydraulic systems. The safety board investigates air-carrier accidents and establishes "probable cause." Its findings usually come in plurals, because Noise is the norm where cities coexist with jetports. A youngster holds his ears as a jetliner appears to skim buildings in densely populated Hong Kong. Actually it's a rou tine path to the runway, just a quarter of a mile away. An approach-light bar, one of a chain that extends out from the runway, appears to bridge the street at center.