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Part Three: Roxie, Trixie and the fat guy
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When the NTSB tested the fat guy theory and a dozen others, an old USAir 737 was opened up like a patient on an operating table. The 737 passed every test.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
With the investigation boiling down to a debate about why Flight 427's rudder suddenly twisted left, Boeing witnesses at the hearing spent hours explaining how the rudder was controlled by a unique valve the size of a soda can. The engineers recounted the endless tests since the crash and how the valve had passed them all.

For Jean McGrew, Boeing's chief engineer for the 737, the hearing was a lesson in the new politics of aviation safety. He sized up the situation when he walked into the Hilton ballroom and saw the families sitting together. He decided the hearing wasn't to advance the investigation, it was just a charade for the NTSB to showboat.

On the witness stand, McGrew spoke proudly of the 737, like he was boasting about his kid's SAT scores. The plane's rate of hull losses (Boeing's euphemism for the word crash) was extremely low. Besides, he said, the valve had passed every test. "That leads us, based on that data, to think that the rudder was doing what it was asked to be doing."

In other words, the pilots screwed up.

Boeing had complied with an NTSB request for a list of other 737 incidents, but then the NTSB discovered that Boeing knew about still more incidents it had not included. Hall was furious, but he didn't ask McGrew about it in private. He waited until McGrew was on the witness stand, then tore into him.

"When we end up in a situation, Mr. McGrew, just to be straight with you, that we request information and then another party sends us information that is pertinent that we didn't get from you, it causes concern."

McGrew felt ambushed. Earlier that week, he had given the NTSB a thorough explanation why the incidents were missed. He felt Hall was grandstanding, trashing Boeing to get publicity.

McGrew was in a delicate position. Boeing was part of the investigation under the NTSB's unusual "party system," which enlisted help from the airlines, unions and aircraft manufacturers. Boeing could lobby the safety board, but it had to be careful not to ruffle feathers.

Still, McGrew and Co. were troubled by the NTSB's fixation on the plane. So two weeks after the hearing, Boeing launched a campaign to focus on Flight 427's pilots. In a letter to Haueter, the company said the NTSB should explore whether the pilots mistakenly stomped on the left rudder pedal.

For Haueter, the timing was perfect. His investigation had sunk into a lull; the letter was just the jolt he needed to kick-start things. He faxed it along to the pilots union and got the response he expected. The union went ballistic.

"We don't want to see the reputations of the pilots compromised because (the NTSB) can't find an answer to what caused the accident," said Herb LeGrow, a USAir pilot in Clearwater who served as the union's coordinator for the crash. He was ready to take on Boeing.

"It's David and Goliath at this point," he said. "If it gets down and dirty, I'm willing to fight. We'll sharpen up our slingshots and fight them."

He fired off his own letter to the safety board, accusing Boeing of trying to divert the investigation. LeGrow said pilots Peter Germano and Charles Emmett III had their hands on the wheel, "fighting for control of an aircraft that was uncontrollable. As they watched the ground rush up in the windscreen, they fought for the lives of their passengers."

The dueling letters revealed a sharp rift in the investigation.

Boeing had billions of dollars at stake. It wasn't just the lawsuits that the company feared. What especially worried Boeing was the impact it would have on 737 sales if people believed the plane was unsafe. The 737 accounted for nearly half of all the planes Boeing made. With two mysterious accidents – the USAir crash and, three years earlier, a United Airlines crash in Colorado Springs – it wouldn't take much for the public to lose confidence in the plane.

McGrew often said that if the investigators found that the 737 malfunctioned, he would quickly fix the airplane. But he didn't want his plane's reputation smeared if the pilots caused the crash.

For the union, the stakes were simple: pride.

It dated to the union's roots in the 1930s, when pilots were forced to fly into bad weather and then got blamed when their planes crashed. That angered the union, which felt the government used pilots as scapegoats.

The union was determined not to let that happen on USAir 427. The pilots would not take the fall.

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Some days for Haueter went like this:

photo
Greg Phillips examines the prime suspect, the soda can-sized rudder valve from Flight 427. Despite hundreds of tests, Phillips could find no proof that the valve had malfunctioned. The two tubes that slide in and out of the valve are in the foreground.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
9 a.m. Boeing calls and whines about the investigation.

10 a.m. The pilots union calls and whines.

11 a.m. It is USAir's turn, followed by a second Boeing whining session after lunch.

Haueter believed in the party system, but there were too many days when all the parties behaved like children.

Even within his own agency, Haueter felt thwarted.

He couldn't prove why the rudder moved left, but he felt the NTSB had uncovered enough problems with the 737 to warrant major changes. Five months after the crash, Greg Phillips, the NTSB hydraulics expert, had drafted a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration that called for major improvements to the 737's rudder system.

As a government watchdog, the NTSB had no real power. Its clout depended on its recommendations to the FAA. Although those recommendations got accepted more than 80 percent of the time, there was a fierce rivalry between the two agencies. Even when the FAA agreed with an NTSB recommendation, the FAA rarely gave credit to the safety board.

Haueter knew the FAA was writing its own safety study of the 737, relying heavily on the NTSB's work. He didn't want the FAA to get the glory. "These guys are going to beat us to the punch with our data," Haueter told Bud Laynor, the NTSB's deputy chief of aviation safety.

But Laynor blocked the recommendations. The 737 had more than 70-million flight hours with no crashes blamed on the rudder problem. Without proof, Laynor said, it was premature to order changes. He wouldn't budge.

Phillips complained loudly that the fixes were crucial to make 737s safe. Haueter felt so strongly that he went over Laynor's head to Chairman Jim Hall. But Hall was unwilling to challenge Laynor, who was regarded as one of the board's best technical minds. The 737 safety fixes would have to wait, gathering dust on Laynor's desk.

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