Unfortunately, and not only in aviation, big things have to happen so people, companies and law makers open their eyes to new approaches on what to do to avoid losing lives or having big accidents. Car crashes and their motives encourage car makers to improve security; people suffering or dying due to health care negligence motivates protests which in turn can lead to big changes; when war tactics fail, governments realize something has to be done; even in countries like France, where violence has arrived, new laws and tactics are now being used to fight back.
As for aviation, lives have been lost and accidents have had to happen in order for companies and policies to be changed. There is no good outcome from a plane crash, but what has been learned and how law and policies have changed in the United States is a big step towards avoiding future incidents. Think about it the next time you step into a plane and feel safe for the duration of your flight.
In 1956, on June 30, at 10:30 am, United Airlines flight 718 collided in mid-air over the Grand Canyon against another plane, TWA flight 2. All 128 passengers aboard lost their lives, being the first commercial plane crash where more than 100 hundred lives were lost. This led to a $250 million upgrade in air traffic control (ATC), a big amount of money at the time. It also brought the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency in order to monitor aviation safety. The location of the crash is now a National Historic Landmark.
Incredible as it may seem, arrogance was the cause of the United Airlines flight in 1978, in Portland, Oregon. The crew and pilot had to circle around the airport to sort out a landing gear problem. The captain was warned of the rapid fuel lost they were having, and despite being evident, the captain, described days later as arrogant and insensible, took too long to start his final approach, ran out of fuel and crashed in a suburb near the airport. It resulted in ten deaths. The change it brought upon the aviation world was that United Airlines improved their cockpit training procedures using the new Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) and leaving behind the idea the captain was irrefutable. CRM concentrates in teamwork and communication among the crew and now it is the standard in aviation.
You can think smoke sensors in an airplane are something that has been there forever. Think again. In order for these sensors to be installed and upgraded, flight 797 from Air Canada had to have a terrible incident in 1983. Smoke started to come out of the rear lavatory in mid-air at 33.000 feet, soon the cabin was filled with smoke and the pilot could manage an emergency landing despite not seeing a thing in the cockpit. It was when the doors and emergency exits were open that the plane erupted in fire, killing 10 passengers out of 46. The FAA immediately after the investigation mandated all the aircraft lavatories to be equipped with smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers. In the next five years, all the planes were equipped with fire-blocking layers on seats and floor lighting to lead passengers through low visibility incidents. Every plane built after 1988 has more fire resistant materials than before.
Ever thought of a fuselage coming off? Impossible, right? Well, Aloha flight 243 had this problem on a short trip from Hilo, Hawaii, to Honolulu at 24.000 feet in April 1988. A 19 year old Boeing had a large section of its fuselage blown off, leaving more than a dozen passengers exposed to the air breeze. One flight attendant lost her life as she was swept away when the incident happened. Corrosion and fatigue damage due to the plane´s 89.000 flights were to blame. In 1991 the FAA started the National Aging Aircraft Research Program and hardened inspections on high-use and high-cycle airplanes in the industry. After this incident only one plane has suffered from the same problem as Aloha flight 243.
Post air Canada incident in 1983, there was another fire in a cargo plane in the Value Jet flight 592. It was triggered by hazardous cargo placed by the airline’s maintenance contractor. The FAA mandated all planes to have fire detectors and automatic fire extinguishers in cargo areas and created and tightened rules to transport hazardous cargo in planes.