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Testimony of Gail A. Dunham
National Civil Aviation Review Commission
October 8, 1997
We Need Action on the #1 Item on the NTSB Most Wanted Safety List-Upgraded Flight Data Recorders!
My name is Gail Dunham and I am recommending that the Civil Aviation Review Commission request the US House Sub-Committee on Transportation, or another Congressional Committee with the power to act, to hold public hearings about the #1 Item on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Most Wanted Safety List:
"Flight Data Recorder Expanded Parameter Recording
Require the installation of Flight Data Recorders with Larger Number of Parameters"
For years airline crash investigations have been hampered by airplanes equipped with antiquated flight data recorders; especially on the Boeing 737's. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ignored safety in this area, and granted the airlines ten years of unnecessary delays.
"Traveler" magazine has called the recorder The Life Preserver:
"The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (or so called black boxes) have emerged in the last decade as the two most indispensable aids to air-crash investigation-and hence to future air safety......When pilots have no chance to speak, the recorder sometimes can."
I am retired from the airlines and for most of my life I believed that the government and the airlines were doing everything possible to ensure safe air transportation. During the past 6 years I have learned that too often manufacturers and airlines put money and profits first and passengers last.
On March 3, 1991, United (UA) #585, a Boeing 737-200, was approaching Colorado Springs to land when the 737 flipped upside down and within seven seconds went into the ground like a rocket. Twenty-five wonderful people were killed. My daughter's father, my ex-husband, Hal Green, was the UA Captain on that fatal crash. Hal was only 51 years old and Gretchen was in high school. Gretchen is now in her second year of medical school and successfully pursuing her life-long dream of becoming a physician. She has missed her father terribly, more than you can imagine. He would have been so proud, and I see him every day in this beautiful young woman. The best was yet to come for both of them.
I have searched for answers as to why this accident occurred; because what happened to us should never happen to anyone else. To this day I have seen no records of a scientific investigation of the UA585, Boeing 737 crash. The black box could have provided those answers. UA585 in 1991, and other "unsolved" 737 crash investigations in the US and abroad have been denied the most important tool-a $4,000 to $20,000 upgraded data recorder.
The flight data recorder (FDR) on UA585 (3/91) had only five parameters, the USAir 737 which crashed in Pittsburgh (9/94) had a FDR with only eleven channels, and Ron Brown's 737 which crashed in Croatia (4/96) had no data recorder! I have personally been lobbying the airlines to install upgraded FDR's, but the airlines state they are in compliance with the FAA. Meanwhile, the airlines have effectively pressured the FAA to delay installation of the upgraded recorders until August, 2001, or later! The United States has put a vehicle on Mars, yet the FAA has delayed the installation of upgraded data recorders for ten years
The public hearing for the UA585, Boeing 737 crash was canceled. It appears this is the only commercial airline crash with no public hearing. The NTSB read reports about UA585 at a meeting, December, 1992, and I personally watched John Lauber, (NTSB Board Member at that time), and others push for upgraded data recorders by 1994. Earlier this year I met John Lauber while he was Safety VP at Delta, and I reminded him about what he had said in 1992, and the continuing need for upgraded recorders. He had just given a speech bragging about Delta's $221 million profits for first quarter of '97, but he said my request (at $4,000 to $20,000 per airplane) was "not reasonable." It appears Delta's 737 recorders have only 9 or 11 channels.
While discussing UA585 the majority of the Safety Board members in 1991-92 only wanted to chase wind theories and went to extraordinary means to try and sweep UA585 under the rug. After the crash of UA585 the disaster was not in the news. That was the week the soldiers were arriving home from Operation Desert Storm. Now, six years later, the entire country of Kuwait has been rebuilt-however, the Boeing 737's in the US are still mostly equipped with antiquated black boxes. I think it is criminal that after all these years the old 737's in service will probably never be equipped to make them as safe as possible. Despite US427, 9/94, several foreign 737 crashes, and the Eastwind 737 near disaster, just 15 months ago, the FAA has still not directed the airlines to make prompt improvements of the 737 FDR.
Throughout these years the airlines have refused to spend the airline quoted figure of $4,000 to $20,000 per aircraft to upgrade the recorders. July, '97 the FAA said the cost would be only $3,067 to $5,611 per aircraft. Most people who fly would wonder why Boeing and the airlines refuse to comply with the NTSB #1 Most Wanted Safety Item! After years of research I have come to the conclusion that the corporate powers do not want data recordings of the rudder anomalies that plague the 737 with its unique single-panel rudder design, and lack of back-up systems that are found on other aircraft.
Southwest Airlines has been credited with being the most aggressive in upgrading 737 data recorders. Earlier this year Southwest reported that 75% to 80% of their 737 fleet have recorders with more than six channels. This means that 20% to 25% of their 737 fleet have/or had data recorders with less than six channels!
Other commercial airlines in the US have 737's with no flight data acquisition units (FDAU).
It appears none of the airlines plan to upgrade recorders on their old 737-200's, and they plan to operate them until the year 2000 or later. It is absurd that 737's are equipped with no recorders, or old recording devices with only five or six parameters. Digital recorders with a minimum of 32 parameters have been available for years and are used in other aircraft.
Meanwhile, Qantas has equipped their 737's with data recorders of 218 channels, and they have a definite timeline to complete installation of quick access recorders. Qantas uses the data to work with their pilots for an "exceedance monitoring program." The use of modern technology and a spirit of disclosure and working together may be the most important component in Quantas's excellent safety record. Qantas spent $1 million in start up costs to upgrade their recorders. Every passenger who purchases a ticket should know that Qantas values safety.
Some 737's in Europe are equipped with data recorders that record 300-600 channels.
Japan Airlines has one of the most extensive flight data evaluation programs in the world, and JAL pilots often request flight data, so they can evaluate their own performance.
The Airbus's are equipped with sensors and data buses that can report on 600 or more instrument readings and switch and control positions. Many foreign carriers have such programs, and others are developing these programs. Cockpit video recorders are also available.
We can only imagine what the true "state-of-the-art" data recorder could accomplish. Unfortunately Boeing seems determined that you will never find that on the 737's.
The cockpit voice recorder (CVR), part of the black box, is also an important component to airline crash investigation. The current archaic laws give the airline complete control and ownership of this information and only allow people to read an edited transcript long after a crash. It is ridiculous that the airlines are telling us they are trying to protect the family from words of profanity! If family members of the cockpit crew want to hear the cockpit voice recorder they should be allowed to listen. I have personally heard the airlines lie and say the cockpit voice recorder and un-edited transcripts are easily accessible. They defend these archaic laws which deny people access to the most important tools of air crash investigation.
A full un-edited written transcript of every word or partial word from the cockpit voice recorder should be made public as soon as possible after an accident. The airlines are saying that people would not understand the CVR. This is an insult to the thousands of excellent independent aviation experts in the US who we need to help with accident investigation-yet the FAA and corporations freeze out these talented people.
The American Airlines crash in Cali, Columbia was blamed on pilot error, however, because of the sophisticated recording equipment the investigators were able to quickly piece together how the error was made.The data showed that the pilot was not just recklessly throwing the airplane out of control. Obviously, the data helps prevent other accidents.
I think everyone should cooperate when an aviation disaster occurs. After UA585, 3/91, the lack of investigation was controlled by the aviation industry. During that "investigation," July 16, 1992, a United Captain, Mack Moore, did not like the way his 737 rudder pedals were responding. So United took the 737 and conducted their own secret tests. Almost three weeks later the NTSB received an anonymous telephone call about the subversive actions of United. Reports show that United had destroyed the flight data recording during that time. During a federal airline crash investigation, or any federal investigation, if people in America deliberately destroyed evidence they would probably go to jail. Yet the corporations, who clearly know better, refused to comply with the laws for almost three weeks, and now even the letter of reprimand against United appears to have been destroyed. This is just another example where the airlines show a lack of corporate responsibility, and lack of respect for the data recorders.
April, 1996, the NTSB reported that the airlines lied about the cost of FDR retrofits.
Corporations had said that, "a major portion of the cost to retrofit the Boeing 737 was due to the need to hold airplanes out of revenue service while the installations were made. Safety Board staff visited a maintenance facility to observe the installation of flight recorder sensors and associated wiring. Staff found that industry cost estimates apparently did not seek to identify innovative measures that might reduce cost. For example, in the installation observed, it had been assumed that aft lavatories must be removed to allow wires to be routed from the tail to the recorder, a time-consuming process. Consultations with Boeing, the maintenance facility, and airline staff demonstrated, however, that wiring could be routed through existing access ports on a lower portion of the aft pressure bulkhead, which eliminated the need to remove the aft lavatory, saving 150 hours of labor. Based on these consultations with installation experts, Safety Board staff believe that adding rudder pedal and rudder position sensors to existing Boeing 737's could be accomplished without interrupting normal revenue service. The work could be performed on approximately 4 to 5 overnight visits, or on a "C" check without extending the visit."
Someone said to me, "oh, that's just the way the airlines talk." Well, they should learn to talk straight and tell the truth or pay the penalty. Perhaps an airline executive who is responsible for these lies, or responsible for not cooperating with a federal accident investigation should go to jail. Other people serve time for smaller offenses. I believe that while the airlines are unnecessarily delaying the installation of upgraded black boxes, especially in 737's, they are avoiding compliance with air crash investigation for "unsolved" accidents. The data recorders are a scientific record of airplane operations. However, the airlines and manufacturers have violated our trust. Therefore, we need independent Congressional hearings.
The money is there for these upgrades and much more. Boeing makes $2 million a day profits during a bad year when they are shut down by a strike. They are probably making $5 million a day profits as I speak. We can only imagine the lavish corporate perks they give themselves. Airline profits are at record highs of perhaps $2 million a day.
The Safety Board's requests for updated recorders go back many years and there is mountain of paper-work that shows the FAA has ignored the requests. Barry Valentine, was Director of the FAA for only a few months, yet one of Valentine's final acts as Director certainly makes him the corporate sweetheart. July, '97 Valentine authorized another four to five year delay, or more, before requiring the increased parameters for flight data recorders. Newly manufactured aircraft do not need to comply for five years, 2002 or later, which is absurd because it would be easiest to install the upgrades during the manufacturing process.
The FAA press release (7/97) announcing the additional 4-5 year delay was also a disaster. It appears there were three or more versions issued, some information was left blank, and other statements were incorrect. When I called the FAA media office I asked, "who had approved the press release?" I was told the FAA only talks with the press-and employees at the FAA could "say whatever they wanted." I again asked my question via a Freedom of Information request to Eliot Brenner. FAA Director of Public Affairs, and he refused to respond to my certified letter.
I would like Jane Garvey to please advise me under what statutory authority the FAA is not required to respond to Freedom of Information requests. Meanwhile, the FAA press release falsely states "with public input."
The FAA continues to demonstrate a lack of leadership, and their total allegiance to the airline industry does not serve the people. The upgraded recorders should NOT be #1 on the NTSB Most Wanted Safety List year after year. The FAA has ignored newspaper and magazine editorials, and the traveling public. Last Friday Boeing announced delay of new 737 production because, "tests have revealed design problems in the newest version of the plane."
"Traveler" magazine also just reported: "Fixes to Troubled Jet Delayed, 737 Still Flies Under 'Unsafe Conditions.'" We need open Congressional hearings for a new voice to direct the FAA to act more responsibly toward aviation safety. The airlines have had six years to upgrade the FDR on 737's and the job has not been done.
I recommend Congressional hearings and a directive to the airlines to complete the upgraded recorders by June, 1998. If the airlines have been doing their job then June, 1998, should be no problem. If they have not done the work then June, 1998, is more important than ever.
My name is Gail Dunham and my testimony is on the internet. I would like to hear from people who agree that upgraded flight data recorders, especially for 737's, is long overdue.
I have written to about 40 airlines that use Boeing 737's and asked for the status of upgrading their flight data recorders-most just say they comply with the FAA, which is allowing the delay in upgrades to continue for ten years of more. I very much want to hear from airlines that are upgrading their recorders and not waiting until the next century. For those airlines who are moving ahead I would like to see specifics about number of channels per airplane and more. The airlines should be proud of the modern technology on their aircraft. However, do not bore me with your safety platitudes and expensive corporate spin-artists. Actions speak louder than words. I talk about this to anyone who will listen and I want to impress upon you how very much I want the 737 flight data recorder and power control unit retrofits completed as soon as possible. While the FAA refuses to promptly respond to the NTSB #1 Safety Recommendation we need Congressional hearings and action.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify and I welcome any questions.