mountain plane crash

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?