Anyone who has ever watched one of those air disaster programs on television can be forgiven for believing that there is always an “ah hah” moment, the penultimate step to discovering what went wrong.
From the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1937 to the still-missing flight of Malaysia 370, accident probes are never easy and rarely are they independent. They are clouded with complications; The biases of the investigators, the agendas of interested parties and the pressures from industry and government.
In his new book, Scapegoat, A Flight Crews’ Journey From Heroes, to Villains, to Redemption, author and airline pilot Emilio Corsetti III tells the incredible story of the near-disaster of TWA Flight 841 nearly 40 years ago.
On April 4, 1979, Captain Harvey “Hoot” Gibson, first officer, Scott Kennedy and flight engineer Gary Banks were flying a Boeing 727 to Minneapolis from New York with 89 people on board. While cruising at 39 thousand feet, the plane suddenly rolled right and plummeted. How close the plane got to the ground before the pilots regained control could be 8 thousand feet, or it could have been much lower. And that is just one of many facts in dispute in the National Transportation Safety Board’s official report.
What is known is that the three-man crew got the airplane safely to an emergency landing in Detroit with just 8 injuries. Briefly, the pilots were heroes. Then they were not.
The flight crews’ reversal of fate was triggered by an inexplicable absence of 21 minutes of audio on the 30-minute cockpit voice recorder tape. Within days of the near-catastrophe, news stories quoted anonymous sources saying that the pilots intentionally erased the CVR. And a premise like that could only mean the crew was in some way culpable for the upset.
Mark Twain once said, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” In TWA 841, this nugget of innuendo set the course of the entire investigation.
Corsetti’s Scapegoat explains point by point how the missing CVR data colored every phase of the probe. All accounts from the flight crew were discarded except what fit the pre-conceived idea the pilots were hiding something.
In addition to casting a critical eye on the NTSB and Boeing, Corsetti’s book also details the long-term effect of the narrowly-focused investigation on the lives and careers of Gibson, Kennedy and Banks.
This is all quite frustrating and very sad. A similar situation is playing out in the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia 370. In that case as in TWA 841, speculation of pilot involvement came early and remains so much a part of the probe that an Australian television network recently all but declared the pilots intentionally crashed the plane in an act of murder suicide. Mystery solved.
But there are heroes in Scapegoat as well. We meet the independent experts who, in a selfless campaign to understand the factors at play, took it on themselves to re-analyze the evidence and challenge the NTSB’s probable cause. (Hat-tip to Leigh Johnson, a safety representative with the Air Line Pilots Association, who also made significant contributions 18 years later to the TWA Flight 800 investigation.)
Even though their assistance is sometimes not welcomed, TWA Flight 841 was not the first air accident in which outsiders played an important role. In my book, The Crash Detectives, I write about half a dozen pre-internet-era accidents in which arm chair investigators, hyper-specialists and academics provided research and other information that was critical in challenging official conclusions.
In the case of TWA Flight 841, it is too late to redeem the reputations of the now-deceased pilots, Gibson and Kennedy. The value of Scapegoat is how well it explains the insidious effects of bias and the benefits of seeking the guidance of qualified outsiders, no matter how inconvenient are the truths that might be revealed.