THE SLEUTHS WHO PROBE OUR AIR DISASTERS
A twisted sliver of metal, a shard of flesh—such are the clues Canada's little-known “crash detectives" use in solving the mysteries of some of our most spectacular tragedies
At least once in every recent year, often close to Christmas, the public has been horrified to hear that another Canadian airliner has plunged to earth, carrying its passengers to a searing, unexpected death.
Invariably and justifiably — although five hundred-odd smaller crashes occur each year, and at least twenty-five times as many people die in Canadian auto accidents as in air accidents — there is a tremendous outcry. "How can such things happen in this day of safety devices galore?” thunder local organizations. “Who is to blame?” demands the press.
From all sides comes the concerted, outraged plea, "Why doesn’t somebody do something?”
Answers to these questions and the main hope for future safety in our skies (if such hope can exist alongside the ever-present risk of human error) lie with a small, little-known group of men who make up the Accident Investigation Division of the federal Department of Transport. These specialists—six in Ottawa and two in each of Canada’s six flying districts—investigate all air accidents in this country and advise on Can-
adian airplane accidents in other lands.
Up until last year, any of the fifty-odd civil-aviation inspectors might be called upon to investigate crashes. But a sudden increase of more than one hundred accidents over the previous year's record high, plus the realization that some inspectors had never seen, let alone flown, some of the new' aircraft plying Canada's skies, forced a big change.
"We had to realize,” says Charles T. Travers, ex-RAF-RCAF veteran, who was made chief of the new' division, "that Canada was no longer in the bushpilot era.”
I he new setup teamed together in each district an expert flyer known as an “accident investigator” with an expert on practical maintenance called an “airworthiness inspector.” Both now go out on jobs together, and both have access to more detailed scientific aid when necessary.
No physical trait distinguishes Canada's crash detectives from their fellow civil servants. Most are veterans of World War II, and of postwar commercial aviation as well. Most have average, but not spectacular educations. Most are in their continued on page 43
A GRIM, GIANT JIGSAW
The sleuths who probe our air disasters
continued from page 26
“The inspectors are likely to have as much trouble just getting to a crash as they have solving it”
late thirties or early forties, and in fair physical condition. They have to be. Unlike their counterparts in more settled lands like Britain or the U. S. A., they are likely to have as much trouble just getting to a cra.fli as solving it. All could probably survive under the bleakest of conditions. Most have done so on occasion.
What does distinguish Canadian crash inspectors, however, is their life-long love affair with flying. The faults, virtues and tiniest peccadilloes of different planes are as well known to them as those of their wives or sweethearts. Thus when a plane falls or suffers a havocwreaking lapse from ordinary behavior, personal experience usually tells the crash inspector a great deal more about what motivated the lapse than any search of the remains by the most observant scientist.
It is on this special, experience-bred intuition—now doubly reinforced—that Canada relies for the solution to its most baffling air crashes.
The DOT investigators, like their opposite numbers in other countries, have an International Civil Aviation Organization manual which tells them how to proceed in any investigation. Essentially it is a step-by-step method of correlating facts, leading to a conclusion and possible recommendations to prevent such an accident from happening again—the real purpose behind all crash inspectors’ work.
But few cra^i inspectors use the ICAO manual ■Æmorc than a memoryjogger. Each inspector has his own approach.
All of them are familiar with the common maxims such as “If you stall on take-off. don’t turn back” or its cynical converse, “He was a good man, but he tried to stretch a glide." There are air-age adages to fit every situation. Not surprisingly, it is disdain of them which accounts for many a crash. Robert Saunders, Chairman of Ontario HydroElectric Power Commission, was the only man who died aboard the six-ton Mallard which crashed near London, Ont., on Jan. 15, 1955. He probably lost his life because he didn't have his safety belt fastened.
Crash detectives have to guard against jumping to conclusions, however. In the case of an Avro York cargo crash at Edmonton during take-off in May, 1955, Inspector Bob Keetley at first took it for granted that the plane was overloaded. From the manifest, however, he found it was underloaded for normal conditions. Then he remembered that “normal” specifications were for loads at sea level, and Edmonton is about 2,200 feet above sea level. He wound up not with a hunch but with a slide rule and the formula for lift, KiSV2, from which he deduced that for the day, altitude, temperature, wind and other factors, the Edmonton runway would have to have been fourteen hundred feet longer to enable the York to clear a fifty-foot obstacle at its end.
Inspector Tony Burleton first thought he had hit another case just like it when he arrived at Fox’ Basin. N.W.T., nine months later to investigate the takeoff crash of a Bristol freighter in which
the crew of three had died. He discovered, after many false clues, that a heavy dump truck carried as freight had been secured at only five of the specified fourteen points. The load had shifted suddenly (as Inspector Burleton
noted in his summary report) “causing the centre of gravity to move considerably aft of the maximum permissible aft limit.”
If an inspector feels a case is beyond him scientifically, he does not hesitate
to cry for help. Tony Burleton found himself baffled by a helicopter whose rotor blade flew apart during a flight over Ottawa in January, 1958. hurling three of his DOT colleagues to their deaths. The forest-products laboratory
of the Bureau of Mines came to his aid. Someone, they said, had pulled a "murphyism,” i.e., a blunder which requires a real genius at blundering to pull. During the manufacture of the plywood for the rotor blade, this unknown blunderer had heat-pressed the wooden laminates without removing the cellophane sheets which arc placed between them during storage to prevent them from sticking together.
On twenty or so crashes each year— far fewer than formerly — inspectors leave the investigation to a closed board of inquiry, usually made up of two or three DOT inspectors from other branches. These arc cases where some unusual cause is suspected, or where widespread public interest has been aroused.
In only three instances to date has the verdict been left up to public boards of inquiry. The last and greatest of these was the celebrated Montreal courtroom inquiry into Canada’s worst air disaster—the crash of a Maritime Central Airways DC-4 with 79 people aboard in a swamp four miles west of Issoudun, Que., in the early afternoon of Sunday, Aug. II, 19-57.
Forty-year-old Paul Fournier of Montreal was in charge of the ground investigation at Issoudun. Fournier, an expilot with the Fleet Air Arm. had taken part in some of the Montreal district’s most memorable cases.
Although the crash of the airliner had taken place near Issoudun in the early afternoon. Fournier did not reach the scene until one o’clock the following morning. A para-rescue squad from the RCA F base at Trenton had been there since 7.30 p.m. so he knew there were no survivors. There was no real need for haste, probably, but he had almost run through the last mile of dense undergrowth, because seconds had often meant the difference between missing or catching the odor of gasoline, alcohol or other liquids before they evaporated.
When he stood beside the fifteen-footdeep crater already nearly full of water, he realized ordinary precautions were not of much use here. The outlines of all four motors were clearly visible, the shattered fuselage almost perfectly aligned between them. All that he could see by flashing his torch around the whole area were thousands of small fragments which gleamed in the dark.
This first glance told him much. All parts seemed to be here, so a wing or tail had not broken off in mid-air. No trees around the spot were broken, so the pilot was not gliding in looking for a soft spot to light. And the plane had hit the ground almost squarely. So the plane had been intact till it hit almost vertically with terrific force. It had been out of control, but not in a spin.
The Quebec Provincial Police were there already. Ordinarily this would have made things much easier, for only police are empowered to move bodies. (DOT inspectors may move them only to extract mail.) In this case, however, there were no bodies to move.
"The biggest piece I've found so far,” one of the provincials told him with quavering voice, "is this bit here.” He held up a shard of flesh about the size of a cigar.
"The souvenir hunters have been at it again,” Fournier heard someone else say in the dark. He wondered what the ghouls had made off with this time: big chunks of fuselage whose locations were as important as their physical condition per se? Or smaller, more valuable keepsakes like rings, purses, or watches? Both, he was to learn later, and some of them were never recovered.
After a general survey of the site, and assurance that the RCMP would be on 24-hour duty, Fournier decided he might as well wait for daylight and special equipment before beginning his investigation.
Fournier had known local policemen in his district to desert a wreck as soon as their eight-hour shift was up. The RCMP, he knew, would stick to the end.
In the following days when it became apparent that a full-scale investigation would take place, Inspector Fournier made plans to move all fragments of the
ill-starred craft to an unused hangar at Quebec airport. Here a full-scale plan of the plane was drawn on the floor, and pieces were fitted in and tagged as they arrived. An estimated 85 percent of the original plane was eventually recovered and fitted into this mammoth jigsaw puzzle.
In the investigation itself, which was delayed by a severe auto-crash injury to Inspector Fournier on his way to work, many phases proceeded simultaneously. The performance of many similar planes was investigated, as well as the detailed
history of CF-MCF from the day in 1944 when it rolled off the Douglas Aircraft Company's line in Santa Monica to its last overhaul in London. England, three days before the flight.
The histories of the crew were combed. Only one of the three qualified pilots aboard, Captain Thomas N. D. Ramsay, 37, had been pilot in a previous crash, the miraculously non-fatal accident to a TCA Super Constellation at Brampton, Ontario, on the night of December 17, 1954. Following DOT'S temporary suspension of Ramsay’s license after this
crash, he and TCA had parted company.
A most intensive search for some eyewitness to the crash turned up not a soul, so the shattered plane itself had to provide most of the clues. Burns on several fragments at first led Fournier to believe that perhaps the airliner had caught fire in mid-air. Put then he noticed on the reconstructed plane on the hangar floor that pieces next to burned pieces were often unburned. “So it blazed up after it hit the ground and shattered,” Fournier deduced.
A thunderstorm in the area at the
time had been so severe as to force farmers and visitors on the ground to stay indoors. Had lightning perhaps hit the plane? No case had ever been proved of lightning downing a large craft, although lightning had often put radios or navigation aids out of business. These instruments in CF-MCF were so badly shattered as to tell no tale.
Other investigations by technical experts meanwhile were turning up these facts: that no explosion had taken place aboard: that the automatic pilot was not on, and thus that one of the three
qualified officers aboard must have been at the controls; that engines, propellers, and lubrication had been fine up till the time of impact.
What did seem significant were two items. First was that CF-MCF had an overload of fuel when it left Keflavik, Iceland, but since it had bypassed Goose Bay and Quebec City, it must have been perilously short of fuel when it reached Issoudun. By any reasoning, it should have refueled at Quebec City before proceeding to Toronto. The other important deduction was that most seat
belts, including those of the two men in the cockpit (it was impossible to tell which two they were) were fastened, indicating the plane was in rough weather.
It was these lines of inquiry, given to the three-man board of inquiry in Montreal in February, 1958, which led to the verdict this January that Canada's greatest air disaster had been probably caused by “severe turbulence encountered while flying in a cumulo-nimbus cloud, resulting in a chain of events leading to a complete loss of control and causing the aircraft to dive to the ground in a near-vertical nose-down attitude.”
A brief, violent flurry had been caused last November by the bizarre testimony of Dr. Bernard B. Raginsky, a Montreal psychiatrist. He testified that he had treated the plane's captain two years before, and under hypnosis had become convinced that Ramsay was not really in full command of himself. But since it could not be proved that Ramsay was even at the controls over Issoudun, this testimony was not considered in the final verdict.
Many crashes result in verdicts which are “probable” rather than certain. There was little doubt however in the crash of a Beechcraft "Bonanza between Ottawa and Montreal on a fatal Feb. 13, 1949. W. C. Siple, the pilot, himself an airline-company director, stood on an Ottawa runway and watched with interest as ice was chipped off a big Colonial Airlines plane which had just landed. Then, apparently without thinking, he loaded his wife and five children into his own small machine, which had no de-icing apparatus, and took off in the direction the airliner had just come.
Half an hour later his ice-laden craft crashed and burned, killing all aboard.
Flying getting safer
It is this unpredictable, inexplicable, often fatal lapse of judgment on the part of otherwise fine pilots which frustrates the lX)T’s crash detectives. One famous case in 1957 concerned control locks—devices put on rudders, elevators and ailerons while a plane is on the ground, to keep these control surfaces from being wrenched by the wind. Following a series of mishaps caused by failure to remove these control locks before take-off. the DOT recommended that airlines adopt brightly colored locks which would twist the controls inside the cockpit, preferably so much that the controls couldn't even be moved.
On June 23, 1957, a Pacific Western Airlines pilot, whose company had not heeded this rccommen Jation, walked completely around his DC-3 at Port Hardy, B.C., without noticing that the control locks were still in place. He managed to take off all right but soon radioed that the controls were "a bit stiff” and indicated his intention to return. The DC-3 crashed on landing, killing 14 people, the control locks still plainly visible in the ruin.
Despite such cases, Canada’s crash detectives believe the world is becoming safer for flying. They point to the most exhaustive examination ever made, the multi-million-pound so-called “jetee -tive story” around the two de Havilland Comets which crashed in 1954. To obtain evidence BOAC spared no expense, did hazardous flight tests over the same courses, even filled one Comet with water and alternately pressurized and depressurized it till it exploded, thus providing proof that “metal fatigue" could kill, and—by contributing this evidence—making flying that much safer.
The most thorough inquiry in Canada
up to Issoudun was conducted by Accident Investigation Chief Charles Travers himself. This was in connection with the mid-air collision over Moose Jaw in April, 1954, of a TCA liner and an RCAF trainer, in which thirty-five people lost their lives. This famous probe led to an ingenious “block air space” system providing positive separation for all aircraft between approximately 10,000 and 22,000 feet.
Since 1956, when the scheme came into force, there have been no mid-air collisions on Canada’s crowded air lanes. “A most fortunate sequel to the tragic loss of all those lives” is how Travers describes the outcome of this investigation.
Travers believes that many deaths might be averted in big-plane crashes if seats faced backward. But neither he nor airline companies think passengers
would like this reminder that air accidents can happen. Travers also believes that the recent rise in the number of accidents (from 426 in 1956 to 548 the next year) is due to the tremendous number of people who now' have enough money to spare for flying courses. Ideally, they should each have thirty to fifty hours of soloing, with instrument and night flying included, before they receive their pilots’ licenses. But this would put courses beyond the reach of most people and spell doom for much private flying in Canada. Nevertheless, he expects a drop in the number of accidents this year.
If he should be mistaken and the volume of accidents rises, it will mean that much more work for those rugged, flight-struck members of his civil-service division known as “crash detectives.” ★