Cue the John Williams soundtrack from Jaws. “Dun-dun…Dun-dun…Dun-dun.” I suspect that’s the earworm Boeing employees have been hearing since the near disaster of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. Today, they are being summoned to the company’s “All Hands Safety Meeting,” where a fixed agenda surely must be as elusive as that great white shark, slippery and fast-moving, just like an accurate total of the number of loose bolts found so far on the door plugs of Max 9s.
Following the inspection mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration on January 7, both Alaska and United say they found several questionable attachments. This suggests that disaster may have been in the making on other flights, not just Alaska 1282. The rapid decompression made a flight bound for La La Land more like a flight created there, say on the movie set of Goldfinger.
At last count, United said the door plugs on 5 of its airliners were not tightly secured. That number keeps increasing on Twitter but United is keeping the exact tally mum for now.
All of which brings to mind the many, many detective dramas including my favorite, the BBC show, Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Harry Freeman. Because if you’re looking at possible explanations for how those door plugs wound up in the condition in which they were found, there are really only three; the airline mechanics, Boeing assembly workers, or sabotage. Leaving option 3 out of the mix, cuz crime is definitely not my jam, let’s consider the other two.
Sure, it is possible mechanics from separate airlines accessed a panel they would have no need to examine before January 5 and loosened the bolts for some reason then failed to tighten them before releasing the jets back into service. But it is unlikely. Boeing on the other hand has a history of assembly line gaffes, including, if you remember, such problems at its Dreamliner plant in South Carolina that it was under FAA scruitiny for years.
I predict the investigation will show the door plugs came out of the factory in the condition the airline inspectors found them and I am not alone.
John Cox, a retired airline pilot who could easily find a second career as a Hollywood actor portraying the stereotypical gentleman pilot, told Reuters the number of plugs found with loose hardware “changes a lot because it is now a fleet problem. This is a quality control problem.”
Really, one does not need to be Sherlock Holmes. Still, it is the National Transportation Safety Board’s job to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Despite the Hollywood-like happy ending for Alaska’s 177 travelers, (no one was seriously injured but that’s not talking about the psychic trauma of being aboard Flight 1282), my vote for the most worthy star to emerge from this story is not the shark, Goldfinger or the beautiful Benedict Cumberbatch. It is Bob.
When NTSB chair Jennifer Homindy first took the podium yesterday to announce the missing door plug had been found she could barely contain her glee. She identified Portland school teacher, Bob Sauer by his first name only. But Bob was the hero, having overcome his immediate dismissal that such a thing could have landed on his property he went out to take a look. And there, the Pacific Northwest’s own Indiana Jones made the thrilling find.
Homendy’s thoughtfulness in protecting her hero from the onslaught of press attention makes her a hero too. She will visit his classroom this afternoon. That said, the high school physics teacher could not be any more ready for his close-up as you will see from his interview with the BBC below.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.