Alec Baldwin Hollywood Shooting and Fatal Comair Crash Have Complacency in Common

October 27, 2021 / 4 Comments

Baldwin and Hutchins on the set of Rust, from the Facebook page Serge Svetnoy

Authorities in New Mexico investigating the unintentional shooting of two filmmakers last week by actor Alec Baldwin told reporters today that the actor was given a gun and told it was unloaded even though a live round was in the chamber.

When Baldwin, on the set of the western film, Rust, fired the gun while rehearsing a scene, a bullet went through cinemaphotographer Helyne Hutchins and then struck Souza.

“It fired from the weapon and it caused the death of Hutchins and injured Souza,” said Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza.

Three weapons were being used for the film, Mendoza said but only the .45 Long Colt Revolver handed to Baldwin was capable of firing live ammunition.

“I think there was complacency on this set and there are issues that need to be addressed,” Sheriff Mendoza said.

When weapons are used in film productions, a handler, known as an armorer, is responsible for their safe use and maintenance. This surely means that before a gun is presented as unloaded or “cold”, there should be a check to assure that is indeed the case. How far in advance was that check made and what is done to make sure the last known status hasn’t changed? These are questions the sheriff is surely seeking answers to.

I know this not because of my superior knowledge of Hollywood filmmaking techniques, or criminal probes, but because similar lapses in supervision happen in aviation, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Until the summer of 2006, it was common practice for air traffic controllers to issue taxi and departure clearances without actually scanning the runway before the takeoff. Then, just before dawn at Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport the pilots of a regional jet with 50 people on board, lined up on the wrong runway, the shorter of two runways by a significant amount and departed.  Running out of pavement before takeoff speed had been reached, Comair Flight 5191 tore through the airport perimeter fence, hit trees and burst into flames. Everyone on the plane was killed except for the first officer.

Many factors led to the catastrophe that day. (Find the NTSB probable cause report here.)  But among those discussed by the safety investigators were two windows of opportunity when the sole air traffic controller on duty that morning might have caught sight of the plane headed to the wrong runway, had he only looked, but he did not.

“The controller assumed that the likelihood of a surface-navigation error was small,” the NTSB report reads and the controller had no reason to suspect that the crew might err,  “No other traffic was on the airport surface to pose a conflict, so the potential for a ground collision was extremely low. As a result, the controller most likely considered the importance of monitoring the takeoff as low.”

The report adds that monitoring takeoffs was not this controller’s consistent practice. Nor, it turns out, is the majority of tower controllers’ time spent this way. “local (tower) controllers spent about 38 percent of their time looking out of tower cab windows,” the safety board reports.

What could happen in the span of time that passes between the all-clear and the takeoff roll, in addition to lining up on the wrong runway? Wildlife, traffic in the intersection, ground vehicles, to name three. This is why in its report on the accident, the safety board urged controllers to “visually monitor departing and arriving airplanes” to “allow the detection of unexpected threats to flight safety.”

I don’t know what happened between the time the armorer or the relevant weapons safety officer on the Rust set last checked the status of the Colt .45 and determined it to be “cold” and the time it was handed to an unsuspecting actor. What I do know is that whether it’s a weapon or an airplane, or anything else that requires consistent attention, diligence is key and complacency can kill.

A productive investigation will determine not just what happened but why so that the film industry can learn how to prevent a future occurrence. That sounds familiar, right? Right. That’s why aviation is as safe as it is.

Categories: Flying Lessons

4 responses to “Alec Baldwin Hollywood Shooting and Fatal Comair Crash Have Complacency in Common”

  1. Rod Miller says:

    Yes, in both cases we say “How could this happen?” But on the set there seem to have been a number of factors: some crew had walked off over safety concerns, the armourer was unreliable, unfindable, etc.
    The day after the shooting happened I wrote on twitter:
    “This description reads like practically any air-crash investigation: a ‘perfect storm’ of mistakes uncaught, misjudgements, misunderstandings & fortuitous events.”

  2. Robert J. Boser says:

    It now appears that more than mere negligence might have been a factor in that tragic death on a movie set.

    The ongoing investigation has discovered that at least 500 rounds of live ammunition was found on that movie set. Live ammunition of any kind has always been strictly forbidden by the long-standardized safety rules for firearms.

    They are now seeking to find out who brought such illegal ammunition to that movie set, and why. Since all those on a movie set are well aware of such rules, it seems reasonable to conclude whomever was responsible for bringing such ammunition to that set, was driven by nefarious motives.

  3. Dave King says:

    ‘Nefarious motives’ could be achieved with 1 live round – 500?
    I have no particular film set knowledge but In aviation safety it is always considered better to ‘engineer’ a solution and only rely on procedural control when necessary.
    Why have any weapons on a set capable of firing live rounds, especially if that weapon is to be pointed at someone and discharged! Equally why any live rounds as already stated.

  4. I’m not sure if this post comparing the shooting to an airline accident was simply a way to tie this to aviation so you could write about the shooting theatrics, or not.

    However, regarding the flight…. ATC should not be “blamed” for the Comair 5191 accident. If we continue. to “blame” others for our mistakes then nothing will ever get solved. Not unlike an industry that always blames pilots for incidents where training was the core issue, etc.

    To blame prevents accountability and inhibits problem solving. The Comair accident was pilot error.

    The NTSB actually stated: “The probable cause of this accident was the flight crewmembers’ failure to use available cues and aids to identify the airplane’s location on the airport surface during taxi and their failure to cross-check and verify that the airplane was on the correct runway before takeoff.”

    Yes, there were contributing factors as to why those pilots made that error. That’s where we start looking to create the fix. The fixes offered by the FAA (listed below) identified the core problems that the industry could control.

    What were the contributing factors to the shooting? What were the procedures and standards established for using weapons on a set? Complacency occurs when there are procedures, standards, etc., and we become complacent so not to follow them. Normalization of deviance.

    The NTSB report addressed four fixes in this incident: (1) improved flight deck procedures, (2) the implementation of cockpit moving map displays or cockpit runway alerting systems, (3) improved airport surface marking standards, and (4) air traffic control policy changes.

    The pilots heard are read back the clearance that was issued correctly, they simply made an error due multiple factors that led to the accident. If there was complacency in this situation, it belonged in the flight deck, not the control tower. The policy change for ATC, identifies they did not have policies in place at the time that could have assisted to stop the departure. Therefore, were the controllers complacent? I think not.

    Regardless, I am not a proponent of the “blame” game, and we should be very careful as industry professionals to get sucked down that path. Complacency is an easy buzz word, that can fit in every situation without ever identifying the root cause or underlying problems.

    There were a number of events that if altered could have stopped both those events. The key is to look at the factors that led to the accident and create steps so it won’t happen again. Taking snippets of the NTSB sidebar and running that direction doesn’t provide a comprehensive analysis of the real issues or how to solve any problem.

    I simply can’t see the similarity in these two events, and the only complacency would be attributed to the pilots. We as pilots need the tools via training and equipment to prevent accidents, not ATC babysitters. With NEXTGEN, pilots will be given the tools to self manage without ATC.

    Production teams should have procedures in place to address live ammunition and real guns on the set. If there were, and nobody followed them, then we could call it complacency. Regardless, complacency is simply a catch-all that will never solve a problem. Especially if it’s misdirected. Accountability is the key. If I raise a gun with the intent to shoot it, it’s my responsibility to know if it’s loaded or not. Regardless before we blame, we should know the facts.

    Please note that the policies were made for controllers “after” the event. But that was not the cause of the accident, that was a safety measure to assist in the future to help avoid.

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