air disasters

Electronic Eyewitness

We now know that no alarms sounded in the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. The co-pilot locked the cockpit door from the inside and set the autopilot for an altitude of 100 feet. It was an eight-minute controlled descent from 38,000. There were no automatic warnings because that co-pilot was operating the ship within parameters, and passengers didn’t catch on for several minutes.

No civilized human being outside of a psychiatrist or psychologist can comprehend the murder of 149 innocent people, and I certainly can’t make sense of it here. But the parallels with TWA Flight 3 continue. Earlier this week we all wondered, was the Germanwings crash due to mechanical failure? Terrorism? Sabotage? Investigators ran through the same checklist in January 1942 after Flight 3 went down, with the United States fighting a new world war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Was the crash of Flight 3 the result of a premeditated act? Another theory had to be examined after the crash of this “giant” DC-3 airliner with 19 passengers and a crew of 3: Did the pilot, Captain Wayne Clark Williams, commit suicide by intentionally crashing the plane? At least one civilian claimed that he did and expressed the opinion in writing to the FBI. The Civil Aeronautics Board and House Committee investigating the crash in 1942 scrutinized Williams’ behavior and mind-set on the day of the disaster, interviewing eyewitnesses that included the TWA station managers in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, the two stops of Flight 3 prior to its crash. Both TWA men stated that Williams was in good spirits and a positive frame of mind, like always. Williams was a cool character, a former barnstormer who had flown in all weather and faced all adverse conditions with a calm demeanor. Wayne Williams could be counted on to bring his ship in safe. More than 14,000 flying miles confirmed this fact.

The “black box” hadn’t been invented in 1942, and answers were uncovered (if they were uncovered) the old-fashioned way—by investigation and scientific measurement. In March 2015 we can usually figure things out by examining those two critical collectors of data: the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. Already the cockpit voice recorder has revealed truths we can’t fathom but must accept.

Some reviewers of my book on the TWA crash, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, gave the opinion that there really wasn’t a mystery. Air & Space Smithsonian, while praising the book in general, took that approach. I disagreed then and disagree now. Imagine if the Germanwings plane had gone down without data recorders. Maybe it was tracked on radar but we couldn’t know what went on in the cockpit because there were no witnesses, human or electronic, to tell the story. How could we ever know for sure that one of the pilots had deliberately flown the ship into the ground? We couldn’t. In 1942 the answers were never found because of a lack of conclusive evidence. I think I ultimately did find the reasons for the crash through a synthesis of 70 years of evidence and perspectives that investigators didn’t have in the 1940s. Back then they tossed the “official” cause of the crash into a bucket called “pilot error” because, ultimately, the engines and controls were deemed to be working, so the pilot must have been at fault.

But they didn’t know why back then. Yes there was circumstantial evidence like an erroneous flight plan, but an experienced pilot should have spotted trouble and taken evasive action. In that sense the crash of TWA Flight 3 is a mystery and always will be, specifically because no one lived to answer the question, why?

Today the data recorders “lived” and we learned the what of this past Tuesday. Time will tell if we end up getting an answer to the question we want so desperately to be able to ask that co-pilot: Why?

Too Much

Well, it’s happened again. An airliner has crashed into a mountain, this time in the French Alps. Reports indicate that the A320 flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf descended from 38,000 feet to the impact point at 6,000 over the span of 8 minutes. There may have been a fire on board that incapacitated the pilots. There may have been a failure of one or both engines, with the descent accompanied by automatic warnings chiming in the cockpit and pilots desperate to restart an engine or engines. I’ve sat in various flight simulator cockpits that are used to train airline pilots. It’s chilling when you’re sitting in a simulator on terra firma and warnings begin to sound—it’s a simulator and utterly realistic. Imagine living the experience six miles up. Better yet, don’t imagine it.

My heart goes out to the crew, the passengers, the families. And my heart goes out to the recovery teams because I was once forced to relive the recovery effort at the crash scene of an airliner—TWA Flight 3 that crashed into Mt. Potosi, Nevada, on January 16, 1942. I undertook this exercise while writing Fireball. Among those lost in that crash was Hollywood actress Carole Lombard. It was “only” a 21-seat, twin-engine DC-3 and there were “only” 22 people on board (19 passengers and a crew of 3) and it hit the mountain at “only” 190 miles per hour versus the 180-seat A320 with 150 that hit at 350 yesterday.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

A plane crashes into a mountain, in this case TWA Flight 3 on January 16, 1942.

The fuselage of a state-of-the-art 1942 DC-3 Sky Club was gleaming aluminum, meaning that when the aircraft struck granite, it exploded and deformed, but large pieces remained. In fact, some of those pieces of twisted aluminum can be seen today on Mt. Potosi. Modern airliners are made of composites that disintegrate on impact, resulting in the bizarre scene in the Alpine landscape, which looks like a litterbug went mad. How many pieces of people and debris are up there? Hundreds of thousands? A million? Each will have to be removed from the site with care because some are human remains and the rest are potential clues to what happened to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. Perhaps the aircraft’s badly damaged voice recorder and flight data recorder will answer all questions, in which case the jigsaw puzzle of wreckage will still need to be collected and removed. All this will be done by people who are now witnessing sights that are meeting and then far exceeding the human capacity to rationalize and cope.

Previously unpublished and in some cases undiscovered accounts of the recovery effort of TWA Flight 3 were blunt by 1942 standards. A few of the bodies of crash victims were thrown clear of the impact point when the ship blew apart and these remained intact. The rest were put through a literal meat grinder—and then set afire. Imagine being ordered up the mountain on a U.S. Army recovery team or volunteering for the recovery job. Better yet, don’t imagine it. The team of about 30 painstakingly picked up what there was to pick up in the way of human remains for four solid days. In the book I referred to it as a “pudding” composed of flesh, bone, melted snow, and pieces of plane as small as splinters. There were 22 victims, remember. Then the recovery team declared the job finished and departed the scene. An hour later, a TWA man still onsite discovered more human remains and stuffed them into all he had with him—a mail sack. Seventy years later when I visited the site, a human bone turned up. That’s the way it is at such sites.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The recovery team reaches the scene 36 hours after the crash.

Take that scene times six and you’ve got something akin to what’s facing recovery teams in the Alps as we speak. There isn’t any snow, but there is a vast mountainside and a ravine covered in objects foreign to serene Alpine landscapes. As for people living the recovery, let me put it in perspective this way: One of the Flight 3 civilian volunteers was interviewed more than 40 years later as a wheelchair-bound old man and said in something akin to bewilderment, “I still see it in my dreams sometimes.”

More than 300 police officers and a like number of firefighters are up there at present, all of them heroes for doing what they’re doing. Many will get past the task they’re accomplishing right now, but none will forget it. They’ll keep seeing it in their dreams.