28 Seconds
Part Three: Roxie, Trixie and the fat guy
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The phone rang just as Haueter and his wife, Trisha Dedik, were headed out on a Friday night. It was one of Haueter's bosses. They ended up talking for two hours.

So much for Haueter and Dedik's Friday night. She was livid. The investigation interrupted all their plans. Worse, she was afraid it was destroying her husband.

They had met the way many Washingtonians fall in love – in a car pool. On one of their first dates, she saw that Haueter was a different breed. He was waiting in the kitchen while she got dressed. When she came downstairs, he had taken apart her kitchen faucet and was studying its inner workings.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I just wanted to figure out how it worked," he said.

That was Haueter: figuring out how things worked – or why they didn't.

When Haueter joined the NTSB in 1984, he didn't expect to stay long. It was just a paycheck. But he discovered that the NTSB was surprisingly powerful. His recommendations to the FAA got results.

Dedik worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, in charge of "The List," the countries that were allowed to get nuclear technology. As she put it, her job was "to make sure the Husseins of the world can't get their hands on nuclear weapons." Haueter's work led to safer airplanes. Dedik kept the world from getting nuked.

One of the things that attracted her to Haueter was that he wasn't married to his job like so many Washington men. But as the investigation neared the one-year mark, she saw that he had changed. He was obsessed.

They would be having a perfectly nice conversation and she would see his mind drift away as he contemplated some damn theory about the damn accident. It bugged her that people from the NTSB and Boeing called him at home day or night.

These guys – and nearly all of them were guys – treated her like she was Haueter's secretary.

"I don't care about the office, I don't care about 427, I don't care about anything," she told him once. "The victims are dead. There is nothing you can do about it. You know what? It's not going to make any difference whether you solve this today or tomorrow. There is nothing that is so important that you have to deal with it right now."

Some nights she would give him 10 minutes to talk about the crash and make him promise not to bring it up again.

"Is it so awful to have an investigation unsolved?" she asked. "Does that mean you're a failure?"

"Yes," he said.

* * *

Mementos in the woods. Relatives honored their loved ones at the crash site. Lee Weaver was 62, president of Salem Furnace, a Pittsburgh designer of industrial furnaces.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
A year had passed since Brett lost Joan, and still he hadn't dated anyone. He wasn't sure he ever would.

"If I meet someone in the future that I want to marry, she will know deep down inside that this would not be happening, we would not be having children, had I not lost the first love of my life," he said.

He reluctantly returned to Pittsburgh in September 1995 for the one-year anniversary. He would have preferred to avoid the memories, but he wanted to honor Joan at a memorial service on the hill where she died.

Before the service, Brett visited the Sewickley Cemetery, where USAir had built a monument to the victims. The monument itself had been a disaster.

A few weeks after the crash, USAir said it wanted to buy the Hopewell crash site for a memorial. Several victims' relatives put their plans to buy the land on hold when USAir said it was interested.

A month later, the airline scrapped the idea, much to the dismay of the families. Instead, the company bought three big tombstones at the cemetery, 10 miles from the crash site. The inscription said,


No mention of the crash, no mention of USAir. The families were furious.

The airline said it was trying to be sensitive and did not want to give families another painful reminder. Finally, the airline built a granite bench about 20 yards from the tombstones that said,


When Brett arrived at the cemetery, workers were planting 132 tulips that would honor the victims. Brett chatted with a woman whose husband was on the plane. She said she often visited the memorial early in the morning, when the cemetery was peaceful.

The memorial and the names of the passengers and crew of USAir Flight 427
The memorial
Brett found it anything but peaceful. The cemetery sat beneath the flight path to the Pittsburgh airport. As he gazed at a memorial to one of the worst plane crashes in the nation's history, USAir planes roared overhead.

That evening, Brett boarded one of the first buses that climbed the gravel road and stopped at the crash site. He walked down the hill toward the place he called ground zero, where the plane's nose hit the ground.

As the service began, a 737 happened to pass overhead. Brett looked up at the sky. At 7:03, the time of the crash, church bells pealed throughout the city.

* * *

They had tested everything from bombs to birds. Now it was time to test fat guys.

The theory went like this: A fat passenger could have stepped through the floor of the USAir plane and onto a cable that moved the rudder. Crazy as it sounded, it had some credence. Maintenance records showed a temporary floor patch in the first few rows of seats. A huge man, possibly 300 pounds, had been on a previous flight.

Investigators scoffed at the theory: Some joked that the guy would have to have worn spiked high heels. But Haueter was willing to try just about anything because his best theory – a malfunction in the rudder valve – had not been proven.

They gathered in a hangar in Seattle in February 1996. A ratchet was hooked to the rudder cable of a 737 so they could add weight in 50-pound increments and watch as the man grew from skinny to obese.

The guy started at 50 pounds, more of a kindergartener than a fat guy. No rudder movement.

At 150 pounds, the rudder barely budged. At 250 pounds, it moved 2 degrees, not even close to the 21 degrees it had moved on Flight 427.

So much for blaming the fat guy.

Across the street, Boeing was conducting an unusual lobbying campaign with the chairman of the NTSB.

Boeing test pilot Michael Hewett, a bulky former Navy pilot, led Chairman Hall into a flight simulator and pointed him to the right pilot's seat. Hall could pretend he was Charles Emmett, the first officer on Flight 427. He could take control of the plane and try to keep it from crashing.

Hewett came across as brash and cocky. His not-so-subtle message to Hall was that any pilot worth his salt could have saved Flight 427. When the plane rolled left, the USAir crew should have turned the wheel to the right and pushed it forward to let the airplane gain speed. The plane would have lost altitude, but everyone would have survived. Simple.

Hall buckled himself in, with John Cox of the pilots union in the observer seat. Hall had invited Cox along because he knew Hewett was going to do a hard sell. He wanted Cox to provide a counterpoint.

Hewett started by demonstrating the recovery himself. Now it was Hall's turn.

When the rudder suddenly twisted left, Hall followed Hewett's instructions and turned the wheel to the right.

"Hold it! Hold it!" Hewett told him.

The simulator started to plunge toward the ground but Hall stopped the roll and brought the nose back up. "Ease it out," Hewett said. Hall had saved the plane and 132 lives.

Cox spoke up to explain why the pilots would make the crucial error of pulling back on the control wheel.

"The airplane is not responding the way they want it to," Cox argued. "The windscreen is full of the ground and it is understandable that they would try to reduce the number of variables that they are facing."

"But," said Hewett, "anybody who has ever been trained in a jet knows, with the stick shaker going off, the only way to recover is to let up on the stick. His first reaction should have been to push up on the stick," rather than pull.

Hall tried the simulator again. "There's the rudder in full hard," Hewett said. "Right wheel! Right wheel!"

But Hall turned left. The plane crashed. "I almost recovered," Hall said.

After the session, Hall said Hewett was too heavy-handed. The Boeing engineers had nearly 18 months to figure out how to save the plane. The pilots had only seconds.

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