Dr. Fred Bortz


by Fred Bortz

(July-August, 2002)


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In the skies above Pittsburgh in ideal late-summer weather on September 8, 1994, USAir Flight 427 from Chicago began its final approach -- ever.

The Boeing 737-300, piloted by an experienced captain and first officer, started a gentle left turn. The plane had begun to level off when it encountered mild turbulence, later identified as the wake from a larger Boeing 727 four miles ahead in the approach pattern.

Without warning, the aircraft rolled sharply left. The first officer grunted, presumably as his foot pushed the rudder control, but the rolling continued. When the nose of the plane pitched downward, one of the pilots pulled back on the control column. The plane stalled.

It was twelve seconds since the first inkling of trouble. Now they were plunging nearly straight down at 240 miles per hour a mile above the hill behind a shopping center. Sixteen seconds later, the impact killed all 132 on board.


All of those facts, except for the source of the turbulence and the reason for the grunt, were known within days after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began its investigation. But teasing out the remaining details about the crash and, more importantly, understanding its causes and making recommendations, took more than four years.

Among the aviation journalists who followed the story were Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times and Dublin-based Gerry Byrne, each of whom has written a new book about the tragedy.

Both Mr. Adair's The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation(Smithsonian, 240 pages + 16 pages of b/w photographs, $25.95, April, 2002)

coverShop for Adair's book at discount price

and Mr. Byrne's Flight 427: Anatomy of an Air Disaster (Copernicus Books, 312 pages, $27.50, July, 2002)

coverShop for Byrne's book at discount price

give readers a clear picture of what happened that tragic afternoon. Yet the books are strikingly different in audience appeal and in the authors' assessment of the process that established the cause of the crash and fixed blame for it.


In the first 28 years of the NTSB's existence, only four major plane crashes remained unsolved. One of them, the 1991 Colorado Springs crash of another 737-300, United Airlines Flight 585, was uncomfortably similar to this one.

The 737 is a small jet, designed for short and intermediate hops up to 1000 miles. A workhorse of commercial aviation, it had an exemplary safety record. Grounding it would have devastating economic consequences, but allowing it to fly with a dangerous defect would risk lives.

The NTSB faced one of the most important investigations in its history, and both books skillfully guide readers through its course and conclusions. They also make clear the political context: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), USAir and other commercial airlines, Boeing and its subcontractors, and the Air Line Pilot's Association (ALPA) all had a stake in the outcome -- and their interests often conflicted.


Readers looking for the human interest aspect of the tragedy will prefer Mr. Adair's book with its account of lives lost and the struggles of their survivors. They meet a young widower from Chicago and share his outrage during the hours after the crash when an over-cautious USAir refuses to confirm whether his wife was on board. They experience his exasperation as he seeks compensation through an adversarial legal system that must dispassionately determine the monetary value of a life cut off too soon.

Readers looking for science and technology will prefer Mr. Byrne's book, which has more engineering detail, including an extensive section on the crash of United 585.

The most significant difference between the two books is in the authors' assessments of the political process. The NTSB toned down the language of the final report, and that made it possible for the FAA to respond with a pro-Boeing political spin -- despite the findings of serious defects in the rudder control system.

Mr. Adair argues that "the system worked," because "the NTSB's messy internal fights led to a more solid report and ... the tension between the NTSB and the FAA creates a healthy check and balance."

Mr. Byrne's view of the squabbling is less charitable. He describes a follow-up investigation by the FAA's Engineering Test and Evaluation Board (ETEB), formed two months after the NTSB report, this way: "The original premise of the Flight 427 investigation by NTSB staff was so tenuous that without the validation of the ETEB report, the FAA could have continued to dismiss the NTSB's findings."


Twisting, plunging, nose turned downward,
The doomed aircraft points an accusing finger.
"This time, you must find out!"


Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is an author of science books for young readers, including Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure -- and Success