The “Groundhog Day” Accident

What made this crash more than tragic was that it was foreseeable and likely preventable if not for the preference of profit over safety in some of the aviation industry and for the lax oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration in its failure to adequately address known safety risks related to icing.

– Jim Hall, former chairman of the NTSB, quoted in the Buffalo News.

In aviation, there is an expression that the rules, regulations, designs and procedures are “written in blood” – meaning the tremendous safety that is built into ourair transport system comes at the steepest price of all: human lives. It is is a grim reality, but when people die in airplane crashes, the lessons learned generally do make it less likely history will repeat itself. We are supposed to learn from our mistakes, right?

Except, it seems, when it comes to ice. For as long as pilots have dared to fly their airplanes into the clouds, they have found themselves grappling with this efficient killer – and yet the accidents keep happening again and again – as if we are all living in Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day” nightmare.

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While it is way to early to know what happened with certainty, he crash of Colgan/Continental 3407 in Buffalo appears to be a tragic replay of the the Comair crash in January 1997 outside Detroit, which itself was a repeat of the American Eagle crash in Roselawn, Indiana in 1994 – which had all the elements of the crash of American Airlines Flight 63 in Centerville, TN – in October of 1943!

There are plenty of other deadly crashes in between – way too numerous to mention (the grim list is here) – but some of them may be lodged in your memory: the Air Florida crash into the Potomac in Washington DC in 1982 – the DC-8 carrying US troops home for the holidays that went down in Gander, Newfoundland in 1985 – the USAir crash on takeoff at LaGuardia in March 1992 – or the chartered jet carrying TV executive Dick Ebersol and his family that crashed in Colorado in November 2004.

We are now in our seventh decade of watching ice laden planes fall out of the sky and you have to wonder why. The National Transportation Safety Board is also wondering. The Board made some recommendations to the FAA aimed at reducing the risks – and put them on top of its so-called “Most Wanted” list.

The NTSB is asking the FAA to:

  • change the way manufacturers evaluate new airplanes for performance in icing conditions.
  • require manufacturers to demonstrate their aircraft can operate for extended periods in Supercooled Large Drop icing conditions (cause of the Roselawn crash) or provide pilots a warning that these conditions exist so they take evasive action.
  • create more specific procedures for operation of ice protection systems and when to fly out of icing conditions.
  • require additional testing – with revised criteria – of turboprop airplanes currently in service to insure no unsafe conditions exist.
  • require flight crews to activate pneumatic boot systems to knock off ice the moment they encounter icing conditions.

In 2007, the FAAputthese ideas into the rule-making pipeline – but only the rule that changes the way new airplane designs are tested for ice resilience has been made the the law of the land. It’s now been 15 years since the Roselawn crash – which crystallized (if you will) the impetus for change – and the rule-making process appears frozen in time.

“The pace of the FAA’s activities in response to all of these recommendations remains unacceptably slow, despite some encouraging action during 2007,” says the NTSB.

For its part, the FAA says it “has taken short-and long-term safety actions over the past 15 years to improve safety of aircraft that encounter icing conditions on the ground and in flight.” And it released a fact-sheet with a tally of actions taken since Roselawn. It boasts of “100 airworthiness directives to address icing safety issues on more than 50 specific aircraft types.”

But the rules that would change either require installation of ice detection equipment or changes in the way ice protection systems are operated – and the rule that affects supercooled large drop icing remains in limbo pending an “economic analysis.”

Whatever the bottom line may be when the bean counters are done, it is axiomatic that safety costs money – and the converse holds as well. The fact is, the airlines are not doing well (they were a leading edge indicator for the rest of us, I suppose) and the FAA has to walk the line between mandating safety improvements – and placing financially unbearable regulations on an ailing industry. It is probably no coincidence that the only rule that has been codified affects aircraft designs in development – and thus will not incur any direct costs to the airlines.

To borrow a phrase, if you want to know why ice is still killing people in airliners – you must follow the money. Blood money.