September 24, 2008

Airline Safety Peaks a Century After First Fatality


CUTLINES U.S. Army Signal Corps troops surrounded the wreckage of a crashed plane to recover pilot Orville Wright and his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, on Sept. 17, 1908, in Fort Myer, Va. The plane crashed during a demonstration flight, and Selfridge, an early Army aviator, died from his injuries. Associated Press

The U.S. Army Signal Corps' flight ended in tragedy.

PHOENIX -- It was called an "aeroplane," but the contraption Orville Wright piloted on Sept. 17, 1908, was hardly more than a big box kite with a motor. And unlike his famous first flight in 1903, this one was doomed.

Less than five minutes after takeoff, Wright's plane lay smashed, his passenger mortally injured, and the world got an early taste of the perils of flying. It was the first fatal airplane crash in history, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.

"The aeroplane is still far within the experimental stage," a New York Times writer lamented three days later. "The perfected machine will doubtless be different from it in everything from principle to motive power."

A hundred years later, modern jets have made air travel the safest way to get around. Yet, to the consternation of the airline industry, flying generates for many the same rush of anxiety that onlookers must have felt when Wright's plane dove into the parade ground at Fort Myer, Va.

"There's still this mystique about flying," said Ron Nielsen, a retired US Airways pilot who's found a second career counseling people who are afraid to fly. "There's a fear of being closed in, and there's a fear of dying."

It doesn't help when airlines are caught failing to follow government safety regulations, as was the case with American Airlines and Southwest Airlines earlier this year.

Anxiety levels may also rise when members of Congress accuse the Federal Aviation Administration of an inappropriately cozy relationship with the airlines it regulates. In response to reports of lapses in FAA oversight, the House passed a law in July that would force federal aviation inspectors to wait two years before taking airline jobs.

But the facts remain: In the United States, no one has died in a commercial jet crash in two years.

According to a 10-year average of National Safety Council statistics from 1996 to 2005, only two people died in commercial airline crashes per 10 billion miles traveled.

That compares to a death rate of five people per 10 billion miles on passenger trains. And in cars, 81 people died for every 10 billion miles traveled.

Aviation has always been an intensively reactive field, with many of its safety enhancements kick-started after major aircraft accidents.

It was this way even in 1908. A few days after the first fatal crash, Wright woke from his hospital bed and asked to see his mechanic.

"I'd like to have his view on just what happened to cause our spill," he said.

The plane was circling about 100 feet above the parade grounds during a demonstration flight for the U.S. Army Signal Corps when it suddenly dropped nose-first and crashed. Wright's passenger for the experimental trip, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed.

Wright picked through the scattered remnants of his plane and eventually decided what caused it to drop.

"Mr. Wright finds the accident to the aeroplane was due to the blade of the propeller coming in contact with one of the wires of the machine," C.S. Taylor, Wright's associate, told news reporters.

Aircraft safety investigations became formalized in the years that followed. The National Transportation Safety Board, founded in 1967, deploys teams of investigators to major accidents and spends months examining each crash.

The fear of flying may never leave some travelers, but as the industry continues to tweak its safety net, more of them may realize many fears are only in their heads.

"Everyone that I know that flies, when they get on the airplane, they're worrying about 'Will I get there on time?' Not, 'Is the plane going to crash?' " said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

Originally published by CHRIS KAHN Associated Press.

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