28 Seconds
Part One: Zulu
Page 6
As Tom Haueter was driven up the hill from Green Garden Road in a Jeep Cherokee, he scanned the woods for wreckage. He couldn't see any sign of the plane.

It was 7:30 a.m., 12 hours after the crash. The sunny weather from the previous day had given way to a thick gray fog. An eerie mist rose from the asphalt road.

Haueter got out and trudged through the woods with several investigators from the NTSB and the FAA.

Expecting to rescue the passengers, dozens of paramedics and firefighters converged on the hill in Hopewell. But there were no survivors. Rescue workers were reduced to the wearying task of cleaning up wreckage.
[Photo: AP]
Finally he saw his first hint of the crash -- insulation from the plane hanging high in the trees. Then he came to clothes and seat cushions scattered about.

As he stepped into the woods he saw a leg bone on the ground. The air was thick with the familiar odors of a plane crash -- the light scent of jet fuel, the acrid stench of burned plastic and the oddly sweet smell of burned flesh.

Haueter stepped around a wing panel and glanced up. A dismembered arm hung from a branch, a wedding ring on one of the fingers.

"Take a look," he told the group, "but don't move anything."

Nobody spoke as they absorbed the horror.

There were sections from the tail, cockpit and wings, but much of the plane had smashed into pieces no larger than graham crackers.

An odd assortment of items survived with no damage. There were thousands of BusinessWeeks with "THE GLOBAL INVESTOR" on the cover, and suitcases that looked as if the passengers of Flight 427 had set them down in the forest and walked away.

Surely this couldn't be everything from a 50-ton jetliner.

"Where's the airplane?" somebody asked.

"It's here," said NTSB engine expert Jerome Frechette. "It's all around us."

* * *

Haueter's next stop was a USAir conference room about 15 miles away, for the first meeting of his investigators. He preferred a more neutral setting like the Holiday Inn, but the rooms wouldn't be ready until later that afternoon.

Many investigators in the conference room wore jeans and work boots, but Haueter had come in slacks, a dress shirt and a tie to establish that he was in charge. He was 42 and had worked for the NTSB for 10 years, but with his young looks and friendly Midwestern demeanor ("Holy mackerel!" he liked to say), many people didn't realize he was a chief investigator. That was a sore point with Haueter, who felt he always had to prove himself.

Couldn't you be a nice guy and be a leader?

Haueter's first task was to get his team organized. Packed into the conference room near the Pittsburgh airport were more than 100 people who would be part of his investigation -- the crash experts from the NTSB, plus specialists from Boeing, USAir, the Air Line Pilots Association, the machinists union and the FAA.

They called it the "party system." The NTSB was such a small agency that it could not afford to have staff experts in every aspect of aviation. So it enlisted help from the "parties" that were affected by the accident. USAir mechanics would help identify wreckage. Boeing engineers would test the broken parts. Pilots would listen to the cockpit voice recorder.

But the party system was no party. Each group had a huge stake in the outcome of the investigation, and they fought to protect their interests. If Boeing's plane were blamed for the crash, the company stood to lose millions in sales. USAir – already reeling from the previous crashes – could be doomed if the public thought its pilots were at fault. The pilots union didn't have a financial stake, but it always fought hard to protect the reputations of its own.

It was a strange system. The detectives would include the people who flew the plane, owned it, built it and maintained it.

Critics said the approach gave parties too much influence. It was like a homicide investigation where the killer is invited to work side by side with police, given access to all the evidence, even encouraged to suggest who the real killer might be.

Haueter liked it.

Yes, it was loud and messy, but he believed it helped the NTSB uncover the truth. After hearing the arguments from all parties, the fiercely independent NTSB could issue an objective ruling on why the plane crashed.

Haueter introduced himself and explained the rules. The party representatives would be full-fledged investigators with access to the same information as the safety board. But they could not talk to the press and they had to be careful what they said in public.

"I don't want to hear from Mary, the waitress at Bob's Bar, what the NTSB thinks the cause is," Haueter told them.

At a meeting later that day, Haueter relished the opportunity to show the parties who was in charge.

As he went around the room asking everyone their role in the investigation, USAir Vice President Bruce Aubin said he was "observing."

"Please leave," Haueter told him.

"I'm not going," Aubin said.

"Yes, you are," Haueter said.

"Our company rules require that a senior . . ."

"No," Haueter interrupted. "Your company rules are in conflict with my rules. Please leave right now."

* * *

The jet that crashed outside Pittsburgh was a Boeing 737-300, a model nicknamed the "Quichewagon."

It's called that because it has computers that let the plane practically fly itself. Pilots who rely on the high-tech devices are less macho. They are "quiche-eaters."

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.

The stubby two-engine plane has all the sex appeal of a four-door sedan. Other jets have mean-sounding nicknames like Mad Dog, Mega-Dog and Yard Dart, but the 737 names are wimpy: Fat Albert, Guppy, Fat Little Ugly Fellow, or FLUF.

It is dull but efficient, the world's most widely used airliner. As you read this, more than 700 are in the air. The plane accounts for 40 percent of the flights from Tampa International Airport, far more than any other plane.

The question facing Haueter was whether the Fat Little Ugly Fellow had a hidden flaw, a gremlin that had gone undetected since the first 737s began flying 30 years earlier. If there was a flaw, it would be like Russian roulette: Countless 737s could fly without a problem, but some day, another one would go down.

A lot was riding on the investigation: the safety of passengers boarding 737s every day; the fate of the airplane itself; the fortunes of USAir and Boeing; and the reputation of the NTSB.

Most crashes are solved within a few weeks, but this one would defy explanation. It would become one of the greatest mysteries in the history of aviation.

Haueter's detective work would require a combination of amazing science and luck. His team would explore everything from whether a hydraulic gadget failed to whether a terrorist blew up the plane to whether it crashed because a fat passenger stepped through the floor.

Finding the truth would be especially difficult because of the raw politics that intruded on the investigation. Boeing, in particular, would play hardball to keep the government from blaming its airplane.

It took 28 seconds for the plane to flip out of the sky and crash into the hill in Hopewell. It would take more than four years for the NTSB to decide if it could explain why.

* * *

The plane's black boxes – the voice and flight recorders that really are bright orange – were found a few hours after the crash and flown to Washington.

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.

Technicians in the NTSB lab pried open the battered flight data recorder, transferred the data into a computer and zapped it back to the Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh within a few hours. The first person to see it was John Clark, a silver-haired NTSB engineer. He sat on the floor, studying the numbers on his laptop computer.

The newest recorders take more than 100 measurements of a flight, but the box in the USAir plane took only 11 basic measurements, giving only a rough picture of what happened to Flight 427. Still, the box gave Clark an important clue. The numbers for compass heading showed that at 6,000 feet above Hopewell, the nose of the 737 had abruptly moved left, like a car starting to skid sideways on wet pavement.

Many things can make a plane do that, but one was most likely: a sudden move by the rudder.

"There is something going on here with the yaw," Clark told Haueter. "It looks like this airplane had some type of rudder event."

It was an encouraging lead. But NTSB investigators have an old saying: Never believe anything you hear in the first 48 hours. The first few theories about a crash – the causes du jour – typically don't pan out.

Back in Washington, the voice recorder team was meeting in one of the safety board's listening rooms, replaying the final words of pilots Emmett and Germano. The rooms have thick walls and insulated ceilings so screams and dying words won't be overheard by people passing in the hallway.

The tape from the USAir plane made one thing clear: The pilots never understood what was going wrong.

The engineers played the recording over and over. And over and over came Germano's dying words: "What the hell is this?"

Part Two: The soda can
28 Seconds


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