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Transportation General

Brace for Impact

Air Crashes and Aviation Safety

by (author) Peter Pigott

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2016
General, Commercial, Survival & Emergency Preparedness
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jun 2016
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  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2016
    List Price

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Why do planes disappear or fall out of the sky? Brace for Impact traces the evolution of accident investigation and explains why flying is the safest form of travel.

The history of air accidents is a harrowing one. Yet today flying is the safest mode of transportation, thanks in no small part to the work of crash detectives. Whenever a plane falls from the sky, the investigators pick through the wreckage for the clues they need to decipher what happened to that flight. Before the invention of the ‘black box’ and the evolution of forensic accident investigation, the causes often remained a mystery.

Since the Wright brothers first took flight, aircraft design, pilot training, aircraft maintenance, and air traffic control have all evolved to current standards of safety. Because of lessons learned from tragedies such as what befell the Comets in the 1950s, the Douglas DC-10s in the 1970s, and ill-fated Air India, TWA, and Swissair flights, flight safety continues to improve. In many ways, the history of aviation is the history of air crash investigation.

About the author

As the son of an airline employee, Peter Pigott grew up at the edge of airports around the world, including Santa Cruz, Bombay, London and Montreal. He attended the University of Montreal Teacher's College (B.Ed.) and Loyola College in Montreal (B.A.). and then went on to receive a M.A. from the University of Vermont in Burlington USA and a diploma in history at Oxford University in England.

Pigott joined the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and has served at embassies in New York, Hong Kong, Vienna and The Hague. He returned to Ottawa in 1993 and began his writing career, specializing in books about aviation.

Also by Peter Pigott: The Official History of Aviation in Hong Kong, Flying Canucks! Famous Canadian Aviators, Hong Kong Rising: The History of a Remarkable Place, Gateways: Airports of Canada, Flying Colours: Commercial Aviation in Canada, Flying Canucks II: Famous Canadian Aviators

Peter Pigott's profile page

Excerpt: Brace for Impact: Air Crashes and Aviation Safety (by (author) Peter Pigott)

“Learning the secret of flight from a bird,” Orville Wright wrote, “was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.” It wasn’t going to be free. The age of powered flight began in 1903 when Orville made the first sustained powered flight on December 17 in an aircraft he designed and built with his brother, Wilbur. This 12-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane two years later and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines. But it took the brothers a few crashes before that secret was partially revealed to them.
The first aircraft accident occurred three days before that historic flight. On December 14, Wilbur tried to coax his Flyer into the air and almost made it. But the sensitivity of the aircraft’s elevator surprised him and the aircraft nosed up, stalled, and then dived into the dunes. It took three days to repair it in preparation for what would become the historic first flight.
The brothers had always been aware that flying meant courting almost certain death. “If you want safety,” Wilbur once said, “you would do well to sit on the fence and watch the birds.” It was the price one paid to emulate the gods. Even the mythical Icarus had died flying too close to the sun, which melted the wax that held the feathers on his wings together. When the wings failed, he plummeted into the sea and drowned. Put it down to a young man’s arrogance, complacency, or disobedience in not listening to his instructor father — all errors that continue to kill new pilots today — but Icarus’s death was the first pilot error ever recorded. However, what is never recounted is that his father, Daedalus, using a similar pair of wings avoided going close to the sun and flew all the way from Crete to Sicily to live there happily ever after. In what must be the earliest ever accident investigation, he had learned from his son’s crash to prevent future such tragedies.
In their pursuit of flight, the Wrights were influenced by the writings of Otto Lilienthal. The German aerial pioneer chose an arc for his glider’s airfoil, mistakenly theorizing that birds flew because they had rigid wings and not the parabolic cambers that evolution had given them. This would cost Lilienthal his life in 1896 when he crashed, his last words said to be, “Sacrifices must be made.” It was by investigating why he had crashed that the Wrights were able to perfect their own airfoil so that in 1903 they could invent the aircraft.
Such was the exhilaration among the pioneers of conquering gravity that personal safety was second place, if considered at all. Having flown for five years without killing themselves, the Wrights saw their luck run out on July 2, 1908, when Orville was badly injured on the fifth crash, breaking his thigh and several ribs. His passenger, U.S. Signal Corps Lieutenant Tom Selfridge, was less fortunate, having been thrown out of the aircraft and killed on impact. A “clean” investigation of the wreckage to discover why it happened would have been impossible, since army officers galloped up to the site, outracing the crowd of spectators that followed. An army surgeon conducted the autopsy of history’s first aviation fatality and pronounced that Selfridge had died of a skull fracture. After that, in what became the first protective measure for pilots, Selfridge’s colleagues were encouraged to wear their West Point football helmets while flying.
While an official inquiry cleared the Wrights of any blame, Alexander Graham Bell (who saw what remained of the crashed aircraft on his way to Selfridge’s funeral) surmised that the brothers’ use of twin propellers — one of which had cracked lengthwise and lost all thrust — had caused the aircraft to drop. With the intricate warping controls, Orville didn’t have time to ease the plane into a controlled glide.
Cocooned as we are today from actually experiencing the sensation of flight itself, it is impossible to imagine the exhilaration the early aviators must have felt defying gravity. Poor seat recline, too small overhead storage bins, harried flight attendants snapping at your request for another drink, a mediocre entertainment system — these are our hardships today. Entitled to departing the airport exactly on time, we expect our aircraft to withstand air resistance without its wings falling off and its pilots to be more than capable of meeting the vagaries of weather and traffic en route.
To the early aeronauts, flying was never just a mode of conveyance. It was subjugation of the laws of gravity, giving one power over the elements. It was, someone wrote, like sex with the gods. Aviation author Leighton Collins, who first soloed in 1929 in an open-cockpit biplane, remembered, “Flying releases something almost uncontrollable in the average pilot.” Air mail pilot pioneer Elrey Jeppesen recalled in an interview: “Those old, open airplanes — you felt like a bird, part of the airplane. You could feel the wind on your face, the wind on the stick and the rudder. You were a part of it. Today you just might as well get on a train.”1 No one captured the exhilaration of flying better than the “High Flight” poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who wrote that with flying one “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … and touched the face of God.”
But that onrush of joy was sometimes lethal, and most fatal accidents in aviation history have occurred because of it. The greatest danger wasn’t the unreliable engine or fragile fuselage but the pilot himself. Again and again, the young man (or woman) pushed the plane too far and died.
Or he was killed by birds, the original proprietors of the air. Most bird flying occurs between 30 to 300 feet above ground level, the height attained by early aviators. Bird hazards (or “feathered bullets,” as flocks were called) date back to the initial flights of the Wright brothers. Doing circuits over fields at Dayton, Ohio, on September 7, 1905, the brothers encountered flocks of blackbirds that twice struck their aircraft. The first bird-strike fatality in North America was in 1912 when Cal Rodgers, the first man to fly across the United States, lost his life after a gull became jammed in the controls of his aircraft, causing the plane to crash.
Bird strikes weren’t reported then because they rarely brought an aircraft down. For one thing, the aircraft’s airspeed wasn’t high enough to cause severe damage to the wings and fuselage when a bird struck them, and for another, no pilot had yet made it to the heights of the massive annual migrations of large birds such as Canada geese. Strikes that occurred against the forward-facing parts of the aircraft did expose the pilot to flying glass and bird debris, but the propellers on piston-engine aircraft were too strong to be damaged by birds. The rotating blades protected the engines, if only by reducing bird size and thus the effect of impact.
The late Thomas Selfridge had been a member of the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA) formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, by Alexander Graham Bell. In addition to Mrs. Bell, who funded the organization, the other members of the AEA were F.W. “Casey” Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy, two young engineers from the University of Toronto, and Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a motorcycle builder from Hammondsport, New York. As every Canadian knows (or should know), McCurdy’s flight in the Silver Dart on February, 23, 1909, inaugurated aviation in Canada and the rest of the British Empire. Yet although Canadians might have heard of what happened at Baddeck, very few had actually seen flying machines, and there were many who doubted men could fly at all.
That changed in the summer of 1910. The two great aviation meets at Lakeside, Quebec, and Weston, Ontario, that June and July fielded a profusion of biplanes and monoplanes that sometimes took to the air. There were also dirigibles bumping along, balloons ascending, and even parachute jumps from the latter. Remarkably, although there were several crashes at both meets, the Silver Dart among them, and some injuries (and one near-drowning in Valois Bay, Lake Saint-Louis), there were no fatalities (or none recorded) among the pilots or the onlookers.
The first Canadian to be killed flying an aircraft was the Toronto-born St. Croix Johnstone. When his wealthy father refused to buy him an aircraft in 1910, saying he didn’t want his son to die, Johnstone joined the Moisant travelling aero circus then based at the New Orleans stockyards.2 Soon, with a few “firsts” behind him such as first flights over cities in the United States, Canada, and Cuba, he achieved fame on the aerial circuit. At the Mineola, New York, fair on August 5, 1911, the young Canadian broke the flight-duration record by remaining in the air for four hours, one minute, and 59 seconds, a difficult feat considering the amount of fuel he had to carry aloft to do so.
Ten days later Johnstone flew his Blériot-type monoplane at the Grant Park air meet held on the Chicago waterfront. Among the onlookers were his parents and young wife who watched as a mile from shore he executed a perfect corkscrew dive over the water. The aircraft’s wings suddenly crumpled, a local newspaper reported, “like paper and the machine hurtled into the lake, its heavy engine and tangled wires dragging its pilot to his death.”
Reporters attributed the cause of the crash to a “flaw in the airplane’s mechanism.” But in what is probably the earliest accident investigation into the death of a Canadian pilot, other aviators at the meet connected the wings’ collapse to the torque of the dive and/or the strain caused by the Mineola exhibition 10 days earlier. The “shear centre” of a wing wasn’t properly understood until the mid-1920s, and the failure to identify it then meant the industry was unable to ascertain why Blériot-type aircraft, in particular, were prone to shedding their wings in flight.3
Before the First World War, the face of aviation in the United States was Orville and Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, and in Canada, Alexander Graham Bell and J.A.D. McCurdy, all mechanical tinkerers who through trial and error had painstakingly untangled some of the mysteries of powered flight. But more familiar to the public were aerial daredevils such as Archibald Hoxsey, Walter Brookins, Lincoln Beachey, and Cal Rodgers. In the pursuit of cheap thrills, the miracle of flight of which so much had been promised was being strangled at birth. Mass entertainment meant dangerous flying stunts such as inverted loops and spiral dives. Between 1908 and 1913, the New York Times calculated that 308 “aeronauts” had died in air crashes in the United States, with 85 in the first eight months of 1913 alone. The magazine Scientific American deplored the situation in which aircraft that had promised so much were now “providers of sensational amusement,” like racing cars and motorcycles, rather than “practical means of transport.”4

Editorial Reviews

What a cool book.

Inside Toronto

Well-researched and presents a definitive history of Canadian aviation.

Winnipeg Free Press

Other titles by Peter Pigott