Aircraft safety officials shouldn't be so full of themselves

Sept. 7, 2000
I am going to put myself in the awkward position of criticizing someone for being right.

Machine Design, Editorial Comment
September 7, 2000

Well, maybe they were right. But if they were right, it was for the wrong reason.

Shortly after the Air France Concorde slammed into a hotel recently, and while live pictures showed the wreckage still smoldering, CNN put the obligatory aircraft-safety expert on camera and asked him whether or not an engine failure might have had something to do with the crash.

Before we get to his answer, let me set the stage. Newscasters were reporting that flames were coming from an engine at liftoff. Witnesses along the flight path also said an engine was on fire. Finally, a photo of the craft just before it crashed showed flames more than 100 feet long issuing from somewhere in an engine bay.

Could it have been an engine problem? Well golly gee-whiz. Seeing that smoke and flames were coming from the whole left side of the airplane in the vicinity of the engines, almost everyone assumed that a bad engine or trouble with a fuel line had something to do with the crash.

Any reasonable person, if asked about the cause of the crash, would have said something like: "Well, nobody knows for sure, but it looks like something went wrong with an engine or fuel line." However, the safety expert being interviewed by CNN, a retired member of the National Transportation Safety Board, simply said: "It is too early to speculate."

That answer is the standard cliche that safety people give when they feel they aren't obligated to discuss something. What's more, that kind of reply is typical of how these officials think they can talk down to people. Their attitude seems to be that the public isn't smart enough to understand the weighty matters that they alone can comprehend.

Now to confess my error. Blaming an engine probably wasn't right -- maybe. Suspicion quickly shifted to an exploding tire which, in turn, probably ruptured a fuel tank and threw debris into two of the engines. Mr. Safety Expert may have been correct, but only because he felt no obligation to give viewers any comment on what television suggested was clear evidence of engine failure.

The point is that the public knows comments made immediately after a crash are speculation. Television reporters and viewers merely want to know what experts are thinking at the moment, even if it is speculation. The safety people, however, can't buy that idea, and they play the "no speculation" card in interview after interview, crash after crash.

What this adds up to is that these officials typically feel no obligation to communicate with the public. And when they do speak, they tend to frame their messages in the same gobbledygook you find in their regulations.

In all, it is hard to find people more full of themselves than those in charge of aircraft safety and regulations. They are important, and they have power. They never forget it, and they don't want you to forget it either. From talking heads on television to inspectors giving pilots a hard time during ramp checks, these guys need to get a grip. They should come down to our level and talk to us as their equals.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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