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Part Three: Roxie, Trixie and the fat guy
STORY BY BILL ADAIR PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SERNE OF THE TIMES STAFF
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On the one-year anniversary of the crash, Brett Van Bortel reluctantly returned to the hill where his wife died, looking skyward as a USAir plane passed overhead.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

It had been six months since the crash of the 737 and Tom Haueter's investigation was stymied. His prime suspect was the rudder, but he couldn't be sure what made it move. The pilots? Or was there a gremlin in the 737, a mechanical flaw that could bring down another jet?

Birds inspired us to build airplanes, but our feathered friends still control the skies. A flock of birds can take down a jetliner and give us a humble reminder that humans were not meant to fly.

Ever since a sea gull collided with a Wright brothers plane in 1912, birds and planes have had an uneasy coexistence. A flock of starlings caused the 1960 crash of a Lockheed Electra in Boston. Speckled pigeons brought down a 737 in Ethiopia, killing 35 people. The laws of physics transform a bird into a missile. When a 4-pound turkey vulture hits a plane flying at 260 knots, the bird delivers the force of 14 tons.

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Feather expert Roxie Laybourne helped the NTSB explore the bird theory. “As long as you have man and birds flying,” she said, “you have the potential for problems.” On her office door, a “Far Side” cartoon showed Santa and his reindeer smashed on the nose of a jumbo jet.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
A bird expert told the NTSB that it was possible that migrating geese were at the same altitude as Flight 427. Investigators found no feathers in the wreckage, but they discovered a suspicious brown clump that glowed under a blacklight, which indicated it could be from a bird.

Chief investigator Tom Haueter was skeptical. "Let's bring the theory up now and bury it," he said. "I don't want to have it haunting me a year from now."

It was time to call in the world's premier feather expert, a tiny woman at the Smithsonian Institution named Roxie Laybourne.

She won't reveal her age, but she's been studying feathers for more than 50 years. She can examine a feather that's been chewed up by a jet engine and tell if it came from a laughing gull or a Franklin's gull. She can identify many by touch. Eagle feathers are smooth, vultures are rough.

It was Laybourne who identified the whistling swans that collided with a DC-10 and the herring gull that broke through the canopy of a Harrier military jet. Her only evidence was a tiny fragment of down from the pilot's shoulder patch.

When Laybourne has a guess about a breed, she walks through the darkened hallways of the Smithsonian "Range," a creepy room filled with 650,000 dead birds. She pulls out a drawer, picks up a few bird cadavers and – voila! – a match.

Laybourne took the dime-sized clump and examined it under the magnifying glass she wore around her neck. She took a closer look under her microscope. No, Laybourne said, nothing here but dirt and vegetation. No bird.

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As Brett Van Bortel flew to Pittsburgh, the plane hit turbulence.

"Nervous flier, huh?" the man next to him said. "They say your odds of dying in a plane crash are higher than winning the lottery."

Brett couldn't let that go. He pulled a card from his wallet about his scholarship fund in honor of Joan, with her picture on it.

"That plane that crashed in Pittsburgh," Brett said, "my wife was on it."

It was his first flight since Joan's death four months earlier. The NTSB was holding a hearing on the crash in Pittsburgh, and Brett decided it was time to confront his fears. He chose American Airlines because it had no 737s.

After Brett mentioned Joan's crash, the man told Brett how his daughter had been molested by his ex-wife's new husband. Brett had heard a lot of sad stories since Joan died. When people found out about Brett's tragedy, they wanted to share their own tales, like they were reassuring him he wasn't alone.

ANewsweek photographer told Brett that his brother overdosed on drugs. A cab driver said his parents died when he was 12. A woman who handled Joan's pension said a drunken driver put her brother and sister-in-law in comas and killed their child.

Tragedies everywhere. Until this happened, Brett had no idea that for so many, life could be filled with such heartache.

At the Hilton in downtown Pittsburgh, he kept to himself, not getting involved with other family members who were starting a support group. He shared their goals but didn't want to dwell on the crash any more than he had to.

The families were furious about USAir's poorly trained employees, their slow response the night of the crash and the airline's refusal to release Flight 427's seating chart.

The format of the NTSB's "public hearing" also aggravated them. Families assumed they would be able to ask questions, like at a city council meeting. But at NTSB hearings, the public was to be seen, not heard. It was the safety board's chance to explain the evidence. There would be no questions from the crowd.

The families took their complaints about USAir to the news media. Calling themselves the Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League, they stood before the TV cameras, holding color photos of relatives who died in the crash.

"We believe the system is deeply flawed," said Marita Brunner, the organizer of the group, whose brother-in-law was on the plane. "We are demanding that this process be taken away from the airline."

NTSB investigators had never been close to victims' families, feeling that their job was to solve crashes, not provide grief counseling. But when NTSB Chairman Jim Hall heard the families were unhappy, he arranged a private session with them.

He and Haueter got an earful. The families recited a long list of complaints and suggested that in future crashes, the government appoint a "family advocate" to represent relatives.

They found a sympathetic friend in Hall, a Democrat close to Vice President Al Gore who was an unknown in transportation circles. When he was appointed to the NTSB, a Washington Post columnist called him "a politically connected white male Democrat whose only transportation experience apparently is a driver's license."

In aviation circles, Hall seemed like a lightweight because he didn't talk like an engineer. His investigators would drone on about dual concentric servo valves, then Hall would recount a folksy story his mother taught him. It didn't help that he had a dog named Trixie in his office. A brown and white Welsh corgi, Trixie occasionally pooped on Hall's carpet.

The truth was, Hall was no lightweight. He was savvy about the self-interest of Boeing and the pilots union, and his connections at the White House and in Congress gave him clout to get the money and staff the NTSB needed. It just didn't look that way when he was throwing tennis balls for Trixie.

Hall promised the victims' families that he would help. But they weren't about to let up. They vowed to take their concerns all the way to President Clinton.

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Part Two: The Soda Can Page 2
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