28 Seconds
Part Two: The soda can
Page 4
photo
Nobody at the NTSB knew 737 rudder systems better than Greg Phillips. He was one of the most cautious people at the safety board, always pushing for more tests before he committed to a theory.
photo
Jean McGrew, the chief engineer of the Boeing 737. One of his kids once gave him a gold Slinky on a plaque that said “RELAX.” He was so wrapped up in work he rarely had time to play with it.
photo
USAir pilot John Cox of St. Petersburg usually wasn’t affected by carnage at a crash site. But when he saw the shoulder patches for Flight 427’s first officer, Cox couldn’t stop the tears.

With everything they had in common, you might think John Cox and Jean McGrew would be close friends: Both loved boating and sports cars, both were fascinated by gadgets and both loved Boeing airplanes.

But they came from different worlds, different cultures. McGrew built airplanes, Cox flew them.

They were on opposite sides in the high-stakes NTSB investigation, McGrew from Boeing, Cox from the pilots union.

Cox, a USAir pilot with 8,000 hours flying 737s, lived in a waterfront home in St. Petersburg and played lots of Jimmy Buffett music. His bookshelves reflected his meticulous personality: Tom Clancy hardbacks on one shelf, aviation books on another. An errant copy of his wife's Martha Stewart Weddings once put in an appearance on the maritime shelf, but it didn't stay long. Even his doodling was intricate, complex geometric figures that looked like M.C. Escher drawings.

He was trim, with graying hair and a silver mustache. Cox did not serve in the military, but he had the swagger. His planes had electronic brains, but they would never have the essence of a pilot. Computers don't have guts.

McGrew came from a different world.

Boeing, the world's premier manufacturer of commercial jets, was run by engineers like him, who work in a black-and-white world of data. None of their equations mentioned guts.

McGrew's mind was like a mainframe. He studied a problem, processed data, reached a conclusion. That's how he decided to wear a pocket protector. Never mind that they looked nerdy. He wanted pens within reach and he didn't want stains on his dress shirts. Data in, data out. Pockets protected.

He started his career with the Douglas Aircraft Co. as an expert on flutter, a condition that makes an aircraft shake so violently it breaks apart. Most engineers preferred a more simple discipline, but McGrew liked flutter precisely because it was complicated.

He retired from McDonnell Douglas in 1989 and was hired by Boeing. As the 737's chief engineer, he was the plane's godfather, approving design changes and making sure it met federal safety standards. Chief engineers usually don't get deeply involved in crash investigations. But with Colorado Springs, this marked the second mysterious 737 accident in three years, so Boeing's top management gave McGrew a lead role.

He became obsessed with the USAir crash. He would wake at 3 a.m., crawl out of bed and go downstairs to his home computer. He would pull up a spreadsheet of 427's flight data and then adjust ratios and parameters to see what effect the changes would have.

Boeing engineers had always been confounded by the macho pilots who flew their creations. In 1955, test pilot Tex Johnston angered Boeing's top brass by making a heart-stopping barrel-roll in the prototype of the 707 during a demonstration in front of thousands of people. A decade later, the two cultures clashed again. When 737s began flying, the pilots union forced some airlines to put a third pilot in the cockpit for safety even though Boeing had the government's blessing for a two-person crew. Boeing saw it as greed, pure and simple, a way to get more pilots on the payroll.

In crash investigations, Boeing and the pilots union – the Air Line Pilots Association – often butted heads. Boeing defended its plane. The union defended its pilots.

When Cox and McGrew separately listened to Flight 427's cockpit tape, they reached conclusions that were worlds apart.

The more Cox listened, the more he became convinced that pilots Peter Germano and Charles Emmett III had no idea what hit them. There had to be something wrong with the 737. Cox told a colleague: "There is a gremlin in that plane."

To McGrew, it sounded like the pilots were startled by something and then overreacted. He heard it in the tone of their voices when they said "Sheez!" and "Zuh!"

McGrew heard nothing to suggest the pilots believed the plane was malfunctioning. They didn't mention the rudder pedals or anything else.

"Pull! Pull!"

When he heard Germano say that, McGrew knew it was the wrong thing to do. They should have pushed the control wheel forward to gain speed. The tape made it all clear to him: The pilots were startled, mistakenly stomped on the rudder pedal and then pulled back on the wheel, stalling the airplane. To McGrew, they had done everything wrong.

The pilots were to blame.

* * *

"Hey mister!" the boy called to Brett Van Bortel. "Wanna piece of the plane?"

Brett had returned to the hill in Hopewell on the one-month anniversary of the crash to bury a gold brooch for Joan, a symbol that he would love her forever. He was walking toward the place he called "ground zero" – where the nose of the plane met the road – when the boy offered him green slivers of aluminum from the plane.

photo
Brett’s favorite photo of Joan. In the foreground are pieces of wreckage from the USAir plane that Brett found at the crash site. He was amazed that the NTSB and USAir left so many pieces behind.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
"Goddamn NTSB," Brett said under his breath. Didn't they collect everything? How could they leave evidence behind?

The wreckage was supposed to be long gone from the hill; the safety board had finished its work there a week earlier.

Joan's belongings had been sent to Brett with her casket, in a zippered white pouch that said "Joan Van Bortel, aka Lahart, Gilbert Funeral Home." Inside was her checkbook, a phone bill and a few shattered credit cards. Her wedding and engagement rings also arrived, minus one of the diamonds that was lost on the hill.

Brett had grown even more annoyed with USAir. The airline was backing away from its promises to pay some expenses and had refused to tell him who was sitting beside Joan. Brett knew she was in 14E, but it was important to him to find out who was with her when she died.

The boy with the wreckage caught him by surprise. Brett finally said sure, he'd take a piece. He walked down the road to ground zero and knelt in the dirt. He was saying a prayer when a woman tapped him on the shoulder.

"Your wife was on the flight?" the woman asked.

"Her name was Joan," said Brett.

The woman started crying. "My husband was."

They hugged. The woman said her husband was Robert Connolly, a financial consultant who was returning from a business meeting in Chicago. Brett explained that he had been trying to find out who sat beside Joan. Tina Connolly said she had been trying to find out the same thing about her husband.

"Do you know where Joan sat?" she asked.

"Sure. 14E."

Her eyes widened. She shouted over to her brother-in-law, "Do you remember where Bob sat?"

He shouted back, "14F."

They stood there, crying. Brett handed her a card about the scholarship fund he had set up in Joan's honor. The card had Joan's photograph on it. "Do you have a photo of your husband?" he asked.

"No," she said. She pointed to her brother-in-law. "But this is his identical twin."

They plotted how they could compile a seating chart by sharing seat numbers. Tina said goodbye and Brett returned to ground zero, to bury the brooch.

He knelt in the dirt and used the piece of wreckage the kid had given him to dig a hole. He set the gold brooch inside and covered it up. He said a prayer as his tears fell to the dirt.

As Brett prayed, Maj. Robert Pfeiffer, a Salvation Army official who had come with him, climbed up an embankment to a wreath of 132 silk roses, each tagged with a victim's name.

As Pfeiffer got to the wreath, one of the roses fell to the ground. He looked at the name: Joan Van Bortel.

He came down to the road and handed the rose to Brett. He said, "Brett, it's a sign from God."

* * *

Page3 Page 5
28 Seconds

Home

© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.