28 Seconds
Part Two: The soda can
Page 5
Additional Information

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

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For a trial lawyer, a plane crash lawsuit is a slam dunk. It's not a question of whether the plaintiff will win, but how much.

Within days of the crash, families of the victims of Flight 427 were inundated with mailings from lawyers looking for business.

"It is most difficult to intrude into your life at this time, but you do need help, not only spiritual, but legal as well," wrote the Cleveland firm of Miller, Stillman & Bartel.

It promised the firm will "only accept five families from any one disaster, as each family is entitled to our utmost time and individual attention."

Included was an ad that listed the death and injury cases the firm had handled – planes, trains, automobiles, even "slips and falls."

Houston lawyer John O'Quinn took a more glitzy approach in trolling for clients. He sent each family a videotape.

"First, I want to offer my sincere condolences," he said on the tape. "I realize that sudden losses such as this are very difficult to deal with, and unfortunately at this time your mind is probably not prepared to make certain important decisions which unfortunately must be made."

He warned the families that "USAir already has its attorneys working on the case . . . in the best interests of USAir, and not necessarily in your best interests."

Brett found some mailings tacky – especially the one with a refrigerator magnet – but some of the letters helped him understand the process of a wrongful death case. Ultimately, Brett ignored the big stack of solicitations and chose Corboy & Demetrio, a law firm so famous in Chicago that it didn't need to solicit clients. The senior partner, a white-haired Kirk Douglas look-alike named Philip Corboy, was known as "the Hoover vacuum of the personal injury business."

The lawyers didn't waste a minute: Hours after Brett signed the contract to hire them on Oct. 12, his lawsuit was hand-carried across Dearborn Street to the clerk's office in Cook County Circuit Court.

Personal injury lawyers loved to file in Cook County because its juries were renowned for big awards. A jury in Chicago would be more generous than one in Pittsburgh, where USAir was a hometown favorite.

Brett would get plenty of money from Joan's life insurance and worker's compensation. What he wanted from his lawsuit against USAir and Boeing went beyond dollars and cents. He wanted revenge against the companies that killed his wife.

The suit said Brett "has sustained pecuniary loss and damage, including loss of society and companionship, love and affection, as a result of her death."

He wore Joan's engagement ring on a chain around his neck. When he'd roll over in bed, the little prongs that had held the diamond would dig into his chest. But he didn't want to repair it. He wanted the ring exactly as it had been found at the crash site.

He had taken leave from his job writing advertising copy for the company that published the Official Airline Guide. He spent hours in the tiny public library in Lisle, reading articles about the FAA, 737s and the Colorado Springs crash. The more he learned, the madder he got. He read how cockpits had become computerized and how three-person crews had been trimmed to two. He became convinced that the FAA, which was supposed to regulate airlines, had become too close to the industry. He read that the FAA had a "tombstone mentality" because it didn't take action until people died.

Even worse was USAir. Brett felt the airline had been unresponsive. The company had rebuffed his requests for a Flight 427 seating chart. His family representative in Pittsburgh – the woman who could not find her hotel – was no help. And the airline had reneged on its offers to pay for a church contribution in Joan's honor and to fly friends and relatives to Joan's memorial service.

His anger was building against Boeing. The more he read about 737 rudder problems, the more he was convinced that the plane had been unsafe for years.

It also bothered him that the companies he blamed for Joan's death were working side by side with the NTSB as it tried to solve the mystery.

* * *

photo
A ghost ride in Boeing’s M-Cab simulator. Investigators relived the final 28 seconds on Flight 427 to determine if one of the pilots stomped on the rudder pedal. To re-create the twisting plunge of the plane, Boeing had to push back the safety stops that limited how far M-Cab could go.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

In a darkened room in Seattle, Haueter prepared to take a ghost ride.

They called it a backdrive, a re-creation of the crash in a Boeing simulator. By programing the simulator using the USAir plane's black box, anyone could fly with the ghosts of Emmett and Germano and see how 132 people had died.

It had been two months since the crash and the investigation had boiled down to a seemingly simple question: man or machine?

There was growing consensus that a sudden rudder twist had caused the crash. Either the pilots stomped on the rudder pedal or there was a bizarre malfunction in the soda can valve that caused the rudder to move on its own.

Haueter buckled himself into the co-pilot's seat and the cab filled with the fake noise of the engines. Boeing didn't have the cockpit recording in the simulator, but Haueter had heard it so many times that he knew the words.

Oh yeah, I see zuh Jetstream.

Thump.

The cab rolled to the left. It was milder than Haueter expected. Another jerk to the left.

Gee, that wasn't very bumpy either, he thought. The cab kept rolling left and began to dive.

What the hell is this?

Haueter's view out the simulator's window had been a computerized sky, but as the cab pitched down, all he could see were the green and blue squares that were supposed to represent the neighborhoods of Hopewell.

He felt the control wheel come toward his chest as the phantom pilots tried desperately to pull the plane's nose up. The simulator twisted back and forth as Hopewell spun closer.

Pulllllllll!

At impact, the simulator jerked to a stop, then slowly returned to level, like a Disney World ride getting ready to thrill someone else.

Haueter knew 737 pilots rarely needed the rudder. They steer by moving panels on the wings called ailerons. They use the rudder only when landing in a strong crosswind or if an engine loses power.

Why would Emmett or Germano use the rudder in calm weather at 6,000 feet?

Haueter flew the simulator 10 times, trying to imagine what the pilots were thinking. They had made a crucial mistake by pulling back on the control wheel, which stalled the plane. Boeing kept pointing out that mistake, but Haueter felt it was understandable – they were zooming toward the ground and desperately wanted to pull up.

As Haueter rode, he searched for a bump, a sound, anything that might prompt them to stomp on the rudder pedal. There were a few bumps, but nothing major. It was all smooth and quick.

Nothing had happened that would make seasoned pilots slam on the pedals. As Haueter climbed out of the simulator, he was convinced: If it wasn't the pilots, it had to be the plane.

* * *

On a Saturday in January 1995, four months after the crash, Haueter caught up on some paperwork in the NTSB's darkened offices. As he headed out, posters in a conference room caught his eye.

The 32 posters each represented a second or half-second increment of Flight 427. They showed what Germano saw from the captain's seat, coupled with Boeing's estimates of how the wheel and rudder pedals moved.

Haueter slowly worked his way down the wall, studying the posters. The USAir 737 had been jostled by the wake of a Delta jet ahead of it, and then rolled to the left.

That made sense.

The pilots tried to stop the roll by turning the wheel to the right. That made sense.

The left rudder pedal went in briefly. That made sense. One of the pilots probably tried to slow the plane as it was rolling back to the right.

The left pedal went in again, almost all the way.

That made NO sense.

Why would a pilot turn the rudder left when the plane already was rolling left? That would be like a driver, realizing he was about to drive off a cliff, turning the steering wheel to go over the cliff sooner.

It all seemed out of synch.

photo
When Tom Haueter needed to think, he wandered over to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh flew this Lockheed Sirius to scout future airline routes. Charles Lindbergh had always been one of Haueter’s heroes.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Then it clicked: What if the rudder drawings were reversed? Instead of pushing on the left pedal, maybe the pilots were pushing on the RIGHT pedal. But a malfunction in the soda can valve somehow made the rudder go the wrong way.

It all fit.

Maybe the pilots had been stomping down on the right pedal, trying to stop the plane from rolling left, but the rudder wasn't responding. Worse, it went the opposite way, causing the plane to roll out of control.

Haueter left the office and stepped into the brisk winter weather. He jaywalked across Seventh Street and headed for the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

This was his secret retreat, where he'd sneak away to clear his head. He marveled at how far aviation had come in one lifetime, from the Wright brothers to the moon landing.

On the second floor, he stopped in front of the Lockheed Sirius, a red two-seater with big silver pontoons that Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had flown. As he admired the plane, his thoughts circled back to the investigation.

Something must have made the rudder reverse. It made perfect sense.

What the hell is this?

When the pilots pushed on the rudder pedal, it didn't respond the way it should. Now Haueter had to figure out why.

Page 4 Part Three: Roxie, Trixie
and the fat guy
28 Seconds

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