28 Seconds
Part Three: Roxie, Trixie and the fat guy
Page 4
June 9, 1996. As Eastwind Airlines Flight 517 neared the airport in Richmond, Va., a bump came from the back of the plane.

The nose swung right and the right wing dipped toward the ground. Back in the passenger cabin, a flight attendant was thrown into some seats.

Capt. Brian Bishop stomped on the left rudder pedal, but it felt stiff. He turned the wheel to the left and added power to the right engine. That stopped the plane from rolling, but he could not get the wings level.

photo
Brian Bishop made a perfect test subject: He experienced a rudder problem — and lived to tell about it.

Leaning awkwardly to the right, the plane was heading straight for the lights of downtown Richmond. Bishop looked for an area with no lights. If he had to put the 737 down, he wanted to do it away from homes and buildings.

Suddenly the rudder seemed to return to normal. The wings rolled back to the left. But then came another thump and the plane rolled right again.

"Declare an emergency," Bishop told the first officer. "Tell them we've got a flight control problem."

Again, the rudder seemed to release. Bishop leveled the plane and turned toward the airport. Fire trucks were waiting beside the runway with red lights flashing as he touched down. Bishop was so scared his knees were shaking.

When NTSB engineers analyzed the Eastwind flight data recorder, they discovered the rudder had gone much farther than it should have – to at least 7 degrees.

A scary brush with disaster, but for Haueter, it might be a breakthrough for his 2-year-old investigation. He would get to talk to a pilot who survived a rudder malfunction. They would do a flight test to look for problems in the Eastwind plane and see how a pilot would react to a sudden rudder movement. Brian Bishop would be the guinea pig.

A week later, Hewett, the Boeing test pilot, and several NTSB investigators told Bishop how the test would go. Hewett, as usual, was coming on strong. Haueter felt he was trying to bully Bishop by questioning his memory of that night and suggesting he might have done something wrong.

"Stop it!" Haueter said. "You're trying to intimidate this guy."

photo
Boeing test pilot Michael Hewett angered investigators with his aggressive approach.

Hewett said he was just trying to get Bishop to understand what happened that night. "I want these airline pilots to be as a good a pilot as I am," he said.

Haueter was furious. He felt Boeing was trying to influence the test.

Hewett was equally angry. He felt the NTSB was acting like the Gestapo, limiting what questions he could ask. He wasn't trying to influence Bishop, all he wanted was an accurate story from him.

When Bishop arrived for the flight test, Haueter warned him about Hewett, who would fly with him in the cockpit. "Look, the purpose of this is that I want to know your perceptions. Don't let anybody talk you out of anything."

They flew to restricted military airspace over the Atlantic Ocean, away from a populated area. If the rudder went hard to one side, they wouldn't wipe out a whole neighborhood.

Bishop flew the same speed as on June 9th. Without warning, an FAA pilot pushed a button that swung the rudder. Bishop stomped on the opposite rudder pedal and eased the plane back to wings level.

"This isn't even a tenth of what we felt that night," Bishop told Hewett.

"Well, it was dark out, you weren't expecting it," Hewett said. He seemed to be offering more excuses to show Bishop exaggerated.

"This wasn't even close," Bishop said.

To Haueter, Eastwind Flight 517 had become as suspicious as USAir 427. The rudder had not behaved the way it was supposed to.

* * *
photo
To get a break from the pressures of the Flight 427 investigation, Tom Haueter went flying in his vintage Stearman biplane. It took him six years to restore the plane, which arrived as a pile of rubble. He named it E.V. in honor of his grandfather, who taught Haueter to fly when he was 15.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

McGrew knew Boeing was in trouble: Haueter wasn't buying the company's theory that the pilots overreacted. It seemed the people at the safety board had made up their minds to blame the airplane, even though there was no proof the rudder had malfunctioned.

McGrew and others at Boeing decided it was time to throw the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

They would go over Haueter's head directly to the NTSB board members, the five political appointees who would vote on the cause of the crash.

It was an extraordinary step sure to upset people at the NTSB, but it might be Boeing's only hope.

The result was a spiral-bound booklet called "Boeing Contribution to the USAir Flight 427 Accident Investigation Board." It did not mince words. It said the pilots caused the crash.

Sure enough, the blunt message annoyed Haueter. He saw the booklet as Boeing's effort to do an end-run around the NTSB staff to stop the safety recommendations for the 737.

After being stalled for 15 months, the recommendations had come back to life. Bud Laynor, the NTSB engineer who had blocked them, had retired. Haueter and Phillips found a more receptive audience in Bernard Loeb, the new head of aviation safety, who helped to get support from the five NTSB board members.

The board unanimously approved the recommendations. The Boeing "Contribution" had fizzled.

While Boeing was fighting, USAir was lying low.

The airline had taken a financial beating after the crash, losing $150-million in bookings because passengers were afraid that it was unsafe. It had been bruised by news stories and nasty jokes. One Internet Web site suggested new slogans for the airline, including: "Complimentary champagne during free-fall."

USAir wanted to disassociate itself from the crash and had avoided taking sides. The company was in a Catch-22. If the crash were blamed on the pilots, that was a black eye for the airline. But if it were blamed on the plane, USAir would have to reassure travelers that its 220 other 737s were safe.

* * *

As Brett walked into the 13th floor conference room that overlooked the Chicago River, he thought about snubbing USAir lawyer Ann Goodman by refusing to shake her hand. After all, she represented the airline that killed Joan. It seemed reasonable that he didn't have to be nice.

Brett had come to Goodman's law office to give a deposition to help the lawyers determine how much Joan's life was worth.

About this story

National Transportation Safety Board investigations are usually closed to reporters until the case is completed. But the agency permitted Times reporter Bill Adair to talk with its investigators as long as those interviews were not published until the safety board approved its final report. That happened on March 24. This series is based on four years of interviews with investigators from the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing, USAir and the Air Line Pilots Association. During those four years, the Times published many other stories about the investigation and the problems of the 737.

To people unfamiliar with civil cases, that process seemed cold and heartless. But there was a logic to it. The amount Brett received from USAir and Boeing would be based on pure economics – how much Joan could be expected to earn in her lifetime, minus how much she would spend. The companies were entitled to ask about anything that might predict how much she would earn, how long she and Brett would be married and how long she would live.

It had been nearly two years since the crash and Brett had started a new life. He had sold the house he and Joan shared in Lisle and immersed himself in a new venture to open a restaurant. It would be like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, but with a dinosaur theme. T. Rex's Dino World Cafe, he called it, "the only restaurant where you're not at the top of the food chain."

When he saw Goodman in the conference room, Brett decided to be respectful. He shook her hand and took a seat. His lawyer, Mike Demetrio, appeared to immerse himself in a magazine but was listening carefully, ready to object at any moment.

"Mr. Van Bortel, my name is Ann Goodman, I'm one of the attorneys representing USAir in this matter."

Reading from a lengthy script of questions, Goodman robotically moved from topic to topic, asking Brett about his homes, mortgages, educational background, even what medicine he was taking.

"Did you marry a woman by the name of Joan Lahart, correct?"

"Joan Elizabeth Lahart," Brett said.

"What was it that attracted you to Joan?"

"I don't know that I could put that in a nutshell," Brett said. "It would be a combination of many things, but I thought she was a very beautiful woman and a very strong-willed and motivated woman."

Goodman asked about Joan's hobbies, whether they went to football games, how much they paid for the house on Riedy Road. She asked Brett to describe the last time he had seen Joan and how he found out about the crash.

"It was our ritual for me to drop her off at the train station in Lisle for her 6:20 train, which I did that morning."

"What did you say to her, and she say to you?"

"I think I just said 'Love you and goodbye.' " Brett started to cry.

"Did you talk to her during the course of the day?"

He nodded.

Goodman asked about every painful detail, what they said when they spoke that afternoon, how he heard about the crash, when he called USAir, when he got confirmation she had been on the plane and when he received Joan's remains. Then she asked about Brett's visits to a psychologist.

"Did Dr. Pimental help you?"

"In some ways, but ultimately, no."

"How was she able to help you?"

"I would say helping me understand myself better and my reaction to it, but I ultimately came to the conclusion that no one but God was ever going to change what happened, and talking about it would not help me."

Goodman shifted gears again.

"How would you describe your marriage to her?"

"Excellent. We got along like best friends. I was very fortunate. I don't know why or how it happened, but I was one of the people that had one of the very good ones. I was very lucky."

"Did you plan to have any children?"

"Yes."

"Had you made any attempts to start a family?"

"No."

"Were you waiting for a certain period of time?"

"Yes."

"How long had you planned on waiting?"

"About another year."

"How would you describe your physical relationship with Joan?"

"Very good. I don't know, kind of guess I'm uncomfortable describing it. It was very good."

"You had normal sexual relations with her?"

"Yes."

Additional Information

National Transportation Safety Board
USAir Flight 427 Accident Investigation Docket Web site

The following documents are in the Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) and require the free Acrobat Reader 3.0 or later from Adobe for viewing.

"On a regular basis?"

"Yes."

"What was the frequency?"

Brett looked at his lawyer to see if he would object. When he did not, Brett looked back at Goodman, pitying her for having to ask such a question. She probably goes home and hates herself, Brett thought.

Realizing that he had no choice, he gave her the answer.

Goodman asked who did the cleaning at their house, who took out the garbage, who did the laundry, who shoveled snow off the driveway, who did the grocery shopping, who did the cooking, who did the dishes. Who paid the bills? Did he have his bank statements from 1994? How much was the electric bill? The gas bill? How was Joan's health? Did she smoke? How much did she drink? How much did she weigh? Was she ever convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?

Brett answered them all.

"Do you have any plans to remarry?"

"No."

Page3 Part Four: Rules of engagement
28 Seconds

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