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Book Review: Adair, Bill (2002). The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation. Smithsonian Institution Press: ISBN 1588340058
By Joan Hutchinson
January 6, 2003

Book cover: The Mystery of Flight 427I have a fear of flying. Oh, I still get on a plane when I need to, but I grit my teeth (and gulp wine) throughout the flight and breathe a sigh of relief when the wheels touch down. So why would I read a book about a fatal plane crash? Maybe it's my wishful way of fending off catastrophe: If I'm prepared for the worst, it will never happen to me.

In any case, I found the crash of USAir Flight 427 outside of Pittsburgh on a perfect, early evening in September, 1994, particularly compelling. Like a previously unsolved 1991 United Airlines flight to Colorado Springs, Flight 427 was approaching the airport for landing, when suddenly it rolled in the air and crashed nose first into a hillside. Twenty-eight seconds after the first sign of trouble, the Boeing 737 was scattered into hundreds of thousands of fragments, and all 132 people aboard were dead.

How does the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) go about determining a cause for such a disaster? The first steps are processes of elimination. For example, the compactness of Flight 427's debris field made a bomb theory unlikely. The "black boxes" containing cockpit tape and flight data ruled out obvious pilot error. A "feather expert" from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum dismissed a bird strike. (If you think a bird strike is far-fetched, a four-pound bird hitting a plane traveling at 300 mph has a fourteen-ton force!) Even a wild theory about a "fat man" falling through the passenger floor onto a rudder cable was given brief serious consideration.

Bill Adair was granted privileged access to the five-year investigation. He's turned what could have been a depressing overload of technical facts into a highly readable story from different viewpoints. Foremost is that of Tom Haueter, crash team leader, whose overriding commitment to solving the crash threatens his marriage. The victims' ordeal, including mistreatment by the airline and subsequent lawsuits, is told through a young widower of the crash, Brett Van Bortel. Adair describes the roles and eccentric personalities of many of the otherwise nameless engineers who work with passion and expertise behind the scenes-for example, electrical engineer Jim Cash, whose self-created database of sounds helps him to solve the mysterious "bumps" heard on the cockpit tape.

For anyone who doesn't remember, I won't give away the results of the investigation. Suffice it to say, a cause of the crash was announced, and airline safety improvements were made based on the findings. Ironically, this book about a plane disaster may boost my confidence in flying. I certainly have more faith in the people working to keeping planes in the air.

Note: The emphasis throughout the book on information gathering and database creating made me curious about the role of librarians in the NTSB. So I called NTSB headquarters in Washington, DC, and spoke with several people in Human Resources. Unfortunately (for our profession), the agency does not hire any librarians in spite of the many publications it generates and the amount of information it must share between departments, and externally with the FAA, the airlines, Boeing, the pilots' union, etc. I thought that perhaps NTSB contracted out their librarian services (as EPA in Seattle does, for example), but was told "no," the agency doesn't even have a library!

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