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A Flight Crew's Journey from Heroes to Villains to Redemption
By Emilio Corsetti III
Odyssey Publishing, LLC.Copyright © 2016 Odyssey Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved.
Some pilots can work their entire career and never face anything more challenging than a blown landing light. Most pilots, however, will at some point encounter a problem that tests their skills and knowledge: a precautionary engine shutdown, a system failure, an electrical problem. Most of the time the malfunction is dealt with, and the flight lands without incident. Occasionally, a pilot will experience an emergency that is life threatening. A useful metaphor in demonstrating the random nature of emergencies involves a basket filled with marbles. Imagine that before every flight a pilot must reach into a basket and pull out a single marble. There are thousands of white marbles; there are a handful of red marbles; there is one black marble. On April 4, 1979, Captain Harvey "Hoot" Gibson reached into the basket and pulled out a black marble.
Hoot's day began in Columbus, Ohio. It was day two of a three-day trip. After a routine flight from Columbus to Philadelphia, Hoot, along with his two fellow crew members, First Officer Scott Kennedy and Flight Engineer Gary Banks, departed for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The weather was overcast with light winds out of the northeast and temperatures in the upper forties. A light rain fell as the wheels touched down at JFK.
After a few hours on the ground, Hoot, Scott, and Gary, along with four flight attendants, boarded aircraft N840TW. The "TW" in the plane's N number designated the plane as a Trans World Airlines (TWA) aircraft. The Boeing 727-100 was a few months shy of fourteen years old. It was one of the first 727s purchased by TWA. The new car smell, however, had long since been replaced by a malodorous mixture of sweat-soaked seatbacks, spilled drinks, vomit, cleaning chemicals, and cigarette smoke. The worn-out interior was matched on the outside with an assortment of nicks, scrapes, dents, oil stains, and two faded red stripes that ran the length of the short fuselage. Of course, nowhere did the aircraft show its age more than in the cockpit, where countless crews had left signs of their presence from the worn seats, to the fingerprints on the instruments and flight controls, to the dust and food crumbs wedged into every crevice.
Some pilots refuse to fly in such an unhealthy environment and will spend an inordinate amount of time "sanitizing" the cockpit before a flight. That wasn't the case with the previous crew on this day. The three crew members entered to find a filthy aircraft. Newspapers and empty water bottles littered the floor. Gary Banks, a detail-oriented former fighter pilot, was especially irked at the mess. He gathered up the papers and bottles while Hoot and Scott took their seats and began their preflight checks.
In the cabin, lead flight attendant Mark Moscicki prepared the aircraft for boarding. There were eighty-two passengers, two of whom were lap children, meaning age two or younger and without a ticket or assigned seat. Many of the passengers were connecting from international flights. They had already spent ten-plus hours flying to the U.S. from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Israel, and other international departure points. For these travelers, TWA 841 to Minneapolis, Minnesota, would be the last leg of a very long journey.
Of the twelve first-class seats, only six were occupied, unless one was to count the guitar case that one coach passenger secured against seat 1F. The owner of the guitar, a young, male passenger, had taken the instrument with him to his seat but soon realized that there was no space for it in coach. Since there were open seats in first class, Mark let the gentleman secure the case to a first-class seat with a seatbelt.
The flight was scheduled to depart for Minneapolis at 6:55 p.m. That time came and went as the flight was held for connecting passengers and a minor maintenance write-up. TWA 841 didn't push back from the gate until 7:49 p.m. The delay put the flight right in the middle of the evening push. Hoot taxied his Boeing 727 into position behind a long line of aircraft. Traffic congestion at JFK at this time in the evening was as common as the traffic jams on the New York freeways during rush hour. All Hoot could do was inch his plane forward and wait his turn for takeoff.
Despite the delays, it was a relaxed cockpit. Hoot made sure of that on day one. His first briefing to his fellow crew members included his disclosure that this was his first trip back as a 727 captain. He had just returned from a three-month medical leave after suffering from a broken ankle. Prior to that he had spent fourteen months on the Boeing 747 as a first officer. Hoot had flown as a 727 captain before, but he wanted his crew to treat him like a new captain. He told them to watch over him to ensure he didn't make any mistakes. The statement did two things: It let the other crew members know important facts about his currency on the aircraft, but it also put the first officer and flight engineer at ease. Hoot wasn't going to be a hard-nosed captain, the kind with whom no one likes to fly. Finally, at 8:25 PM, TWA 841 departed JFK for Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The climb to the planned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, or flight level (FL) 350, was smooth and uneventful. After leveling off and engaging the autopilot, Hoot reached up to the overhead panel and turned off the seatbelt and no-smoking signs. He made a brief announcement over the PA and then removed his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his uniform shirt. When in the public eye, Hoot was the model of professionalism: a crisp white shirt, dark blue tie, neatly pressed pants, and polished black shoes. That professional crispness extended to his physical appearance. Hoot's dark hair and mustache were always neatly trimmed. Medical issues sometimes led to weight gain, but Hoot had a way of hiding his fluctuating weight behind a buttoned suit jacket. He would don his jacket and captain's cap anytime he left the cockpit. Behind the closed cockpit door, however, was a different matter. The cockpit was his office, and Hoot liked to be comfortable in his office.
With the aircraft trimmed and the power set, the next task was to perform a ground speed check. Pilots back in 1979 didn't have the benefit of the technology available to today's pilots. A pilot today can simply look at his primary flight display and read the ground speed right from the instrument. Wind direction and speed are also displayed. The fourteen-year-old 727, delivered in 1965, had no such capability. Determining ground speed was accomplished by performing a time and distance check. If the aircraft traveled seven nautical miles in 60 seconds, or seven nautical miles a minute, the ground speed (the speed over the ground) was 420 nautical miles per hour (7 * 60). The difference between the ground speed and the true airspeed (the speed through the air) provided the wind speed. When Scott performed the ground speed check, he determined that they had a headwind of more than 100 kts.
Hoot's first inclination after learning of the strong headwinds was to descend. But he remembered reading a company memo about fuel conservation. He also had the recent memory of being chastised by the last check airman he flew with for not climbing to a higher altitude to conserve fuel. The company wanted pilots to fly at the highest altitude the aircraft was capable of flying, considering weight and temperature. Jet aircraft burn less fuel the higher they fly. Fuel is the highest operating cost for an airline, and anything pilots can do to help lower the fuel burn directly impacts the bottom line. So Hoot asked Gary to check the numbers for flight level 390. Gary did as requested and said it looked like they were light enough to climb. About this time there was a double knock on the cockpit door. A double knock was the signal that a flight attendant wanted access to the cockpit. This was long before the strict protocols now in place for flight attendants communicating with the cockpit. Standing just outside the cockpit door was lead flight attendant Mark Moscicki. Mark wanted to know if the crew was ready for their crew meals. Hoot said yes and told Scott and Gary that they would delay the climb to flight level 390 until after they ate. That way they would burn off a little more fuel and further lighten the aircraft.
Mark handed Gary three meal trays. Hoot took his but Scott passed. Scott had grabbed a bite to eat in New York and wasn't hungry. Gary placed Scott's meal tray on the floor. The crew meals weren't restaurant-quality cuisine, but they weren't bad, either. Hoot finished his meal and handed his tray back to Gary. He then asked Scott to contact Toronto Center to request flight level 390.
Hoot slid his seat forward and disengaged the autopilot. He planned on hand-flying the plane to the higher altitude. Just before beginning the climb, something caught his attention. He glanced behind him and saw that Gary Banks had just sat down at the flight engineer panel. Hoot assumed that Gary must have just handed the meal trays back to the flight attendant and was now returning to his seat. Hoot advanced the power and started the climb.
* * *
In the back of the plane, flight attendant Mark Moscicki stepped back to coach to assist the other three flight attendants with their meal service. In 1979, every passenger received a meal. With only six first-class passengers, Mark had finished the first-class meal service early. The three flight attendants working coach, stewardesses Francine Schaulleur and Carol Reams, and Steward Carlos Machado-Olverdo, indicated that they were almost finished with their service. So Mark went back to the galley to prepare the flight-attendant crew meals. While the meals were heating, he walked through the cabin and picked up trash. The cabin lights were on.
Mark, Carol, and Francine were New York-based flight attendants. Flight attendant Carlos Machado-Olverdo, a gregarious individual originally from Ecuador, was a Los Angeles-based steward working as an extra on the flight. Flight 841 was the beginning of their trip pairing. None of the four flight attendants had flown with the three Los Angeles-based cockpit crew members, and prior to TWA 841, none of the four had flown together. For Mark Moscicki, this was also his first flight after returning from his vacation.
With the passengers content for the time being, the flight attendants grabbed their own meals. Carol Reams found an open seat in first class in which to eat her meal. She sat near the window on the right side of the aircraft in seat 2F. Mark Moscicki and Carlos Machado-Olverdo ate their meals sitting in the aft-facing jump seats. Carlos sat in the seat nearest the cockpit door. The two men balanced their meal trays on their laps while they ate.
Flight attendant Francine Schaulleur wasn't eating. She was back in the galley warming up a bottle of milk for an infant cared for by passenger Holly Wicker. Earlier she had taken the apple pie off her meal tray and entered the cockpit so she could enjoy her dessert away from the scrutiny of the passengers. The flight deck at night is one of the only places where a flight attendant can find a little peace and quiet. Seeing the crew looked busy, she finished her apple pie and stepped back out as quietly as she had entered.
* * *
As TWA 841 continued the climb they reached the end of Toronto Center's area of radio coverage and entered Cleveland Center's airspace. The radio crackled with the frequency-change request from the Toronto Center controller.
TW841 change to Cleveland Center 133.25
TWA 841: 133.25
Cleveland, TWA's eight-forty-one is out of
three-seven-zero climbing to three-nine-zero.
TWA 841, ident, squawk code two-seven-zero-two.
Twenty-seven-zero-two, TWA's 841.
Hoot made the climb from flight level 350 to FL 390 at 400 feet per minute (fpm), a relatively slow rate of climb, perhaps to keep the ride smooth and the deck angle low. He leveled off at FL 390 at 9:38 pm central time. The 4000-foot climb had taken fourteen minutes.
Once Hoot was level at flight level 390, he reengaged the autopilot. Gary Banks set the power based on a power setting he read off the performance chart. By climbing to a higher altitude Hoot was hoping to get a smoother ride and less headwinds, but by doing so he was also pushing the aircraft to its maximum capabilities based on weight and altitude. The service ceiling on the Boeing 727-100 was 42,000 feet. That was the highest altitude in which the aircraft was certified to fly. On this night, however, with a gross weight of 130,000 pounds, the maximum altitude the aircraft could fly was 39,000 feet.
Flying any aircraft near the service ceiling is a delicate balance. Fly too slow and the aircraft can experience low-speed buffet. Fly too fast and there is the possibility of high-speed mach buffet. Both conditions occur when the air flowing over the wings begins to separate either because of excess speed or a high angle of attack. Increasing the g-loads on the aircraft has the same effect as increasing the angle of attack. Turbulence or a steep turn then can be enough to make the plane become unstable and even uncontrollable. Some pilots describe it as feeling as if the plane is balanced on the head of a needle. There's even an aerodynamic term for this flight regime: It's called the coffin corner.
This is not to say that climbing to the higher altitude was unsafe. The aircraft was well within safety limits. The performance margins, according to later analysis, showed that the aircraft was 70 knots above the low-speed stall buffet and 36 knots below high-speed mach buffet. In smooth air, the aircraft could have sustained level flight at 43 degrees of bank without entering a stall.
While the ride at FL 350 had been relatively smooth, with only an occasional bump, the ride at FL 390 was even better. One passenger would later comment that the ride was as smooth as if he were sitting in his living room. It was also clear. It was so clear that Hoot could see the distant glow of lights from Chicago. A half-moon provided just a hint of light on the cloud deck below. The stars were unusually bright that night. Hoot would later say that it was as bright a night as he'd ever seen.
Despite the smooth ride and favorable weather conditions, Hoot wasn't entirely comfortable. The Boeing 727 wasn't the most stable aircraft at high altitudes due to a number of factors, including the short, highly swept-back wings and a large rudder. One thing was certain, though, at FL 390 Hoot and the other two crew members were more apt to notice any unusual vibrations or other aerodynamic abnormalities than what they might notice at a lower altitude. Hoot slid his seat back and closed his eyes briefly. The time was 9:42 p.m.
* * *
At the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in Oberlin, Ohio, controller Leon Cleaver, who was working the high-altitude Peck sector, had TWA 841 on his screen. Sitting next to Leon and plugged into Leon's console listening in, was a pilot who was taking part in a two-day program called "Rain Check." The Rain Check program was a chance for civilian pilots to learn about the operations of the Air Route Traffic Control Center. A half-dozen other pilots were scattered throughout the room sitting next to other controllers. The only other aircraft on Leon's screen was a Northwest Airlines flight. Leon pointed out the radar blip that represented TWA 841 and explained to the pilot the significance of the information in the accompanying data block that showed the aircraft's transponder code of 2702 and FL 390 altitude readout. The pilot moved in for a closer look.
Excerpted from Scapegoat by Emilio Corsetti III. Copyright © 2016 Odyssey Publishing, LLC.. Excerpted by permission of Odyssey Publishing, LLC..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One — Headwinds,
Chapter Two — We've had a Slight Problem,
Chapter Three — Roller Coaster,
Chapter Four — Hero for a Day,
Chapter Five — An Inquisition,
Chapter Six — Shifting Winds,
Chapter Seven — Fear of Flying,
Chapter Eight — Born to Fly,
Chapter Nine — A Fly on the Wall,
Chapter Ten — Miss Piggy,
Chapter Eleven — Putting the Pieces Back Together,
Chapter Twelve — The Boeing Scenario,
Chapter Thirteen — Libel,
Chapter Fourteen — Preliminary Findings,
Chapter Fifteen — Where Was the Flight Engineer?,
Chapter Sixteen — Fabricating Evidence,
Chapter Seventeen — Eye of the Storm,
Chapter Eighteen — Circumnavigation,
Chapter Nineteen — An Improbable Probable Cause,
Chapter Twenty — Turbulence,
Chapter Twenty-One — Questioning the Investigators,
Chapter Twenty-Two — Costa Rica,
Chapter Twenty-Three — Lawsuits, Lawyers, and Liability,
Chapter Twenty-Four — Challenge and Response,
Chapter Twenty-Five — Weight & Balance,
Chapter Twenty-Six — Breaking Point,
Chapter Twenty-Seven — A Cold Case Gets a Second Look,
Chapter Twenty-Eight — Rudder Hardover,
Chapter Twenty-Nine — What Really Happened?,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by David K. McDonnell for Reader Views “Scapegoat” by Emilio Corsetti III, tells the story of a Boeing 727 known in aviation circles and media accounts as “the plane that fell from the sky.” In 1979 while 39,000 feet over Michigan, flying from New York to Minneapolis, TWA Flight 841 went into an uncontrollable spiral and 360° rollover. The plane nose-dived to near ground level before the pilot regained control and completed an emergency landing in Detroit. The opening chapters are riveting as a re-creation of the vertical descent, through the eyes of the passengers and crew. What would cause an airplane at its cruising altitude to suddenly drop from the sky? That is precisely the question Corsetti seeks to answer. The book is meticulously researched, with critical reviews of crew and passenger statements and depositions, Boeing and TWA tests, the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, and numerous expert evaluations. One would think it would be a relatively easy question to answer – particularly since the plane did not crash. But therein lays the rub. Mechanics began repairs within hours after the plane landed, and had it back in service within weeks. As Corsetti explained: “Ironically, had the plane crashed in … Michigan, the bits and pieces would have been taken to a hangar, rearranged, and placed where each part was located on the plane, and then examined with a fine-tooth comb. In this instance, they had a mostly intact aircraft. Few accident investigations are so lucky. But any opportunity to preserve that valuable evidence was lost as soon as mechanics began repairs. ... Had the aircraft been the scene of a crime, these actions would have been equivalent to destroying evidence. But no one … objected. As a result, evidence that would have been extremely helpful to investigators was replaced, repaired, and/or destroyed.” Investigators were left with imperfect Boeing simulators and tests on other similar aircraft to determine whether mechanical failure was the cause. In addition, when they couldn’t find any mechanical cause, investigators were all too quick to blame the crew. There was no evidence that the crew did anything wrong, but somehow, and sometime, during the near-catastrophic dive, the cockpit voice recorder was erased. Investigators assumed that a crew member intentionally erased the recording and, therefore, that the crew had something to hide. Thus, the investigators simply would not believe anything the crew had to say. “Scapegoat” is a scathing indictment of nearly everyone involved in the investigation, particularly the NTSB and Boeing. They quickly reached a conclusion – that the pilot and crew were hiding something – and ignored or minimized any evidence that suggested otherwise. “Scapegoat” is also critical of the media, which preferred a quick answer to the mystery to a delayed, but more accurate one. Media outlets put out theories based on snippets of information or misinformation and rarely put forward a thoughtful or thoroughly researched analysis. The book does an excellent job of taking the reader through the investigative process. One sees the chronological progression suggested by the subtitle in which the crew is recognized as heroes for avoiding a catastrophic crash, and then portrayed as villains by th
Scapegoat by Emilio Corsetti III is a fact filled examination of the Flight of TWA 841 and the following investigation. On April 4, 1979, a TWA piloted by Captain Harvey ”Hoot’ Gibson with First Officer Scott Kennedy and Flight Engineer Gary Banks depart from JKF in a Boeing 727-100 that was 14 years old. With 82 passengers and 7 crewmen, they experience a rollover and a fall from 39,000 feet. With the crews’ best efforts, they avoid crashing and are able to land. With a severely damaged plane, the investigation into what happened to cause the near fatal accident begins. At first the crew and particularly the pilot “Hoot” are hailed as heroes but soon the in cockpit recorder shows a 21-minute missing segment. The pilot is accused of erasing the tape in order to cover-up evidence. The crew is immediately accused of causing the almost accident due to improperly used the controls. With an almost one-sided narrow-minded investigation, the NTSB ruins the reputation of the crew. This is a very technical book based on records, personal interviews, and the author’s own knowledge of flying. For the everyday reader, this goes into a lot of technical information way beyond my knowledge. What I did enjoy was the description of how the investigation affected the primary individuals involved. It does show though how an investigation with a false predetermined cause can affect the entire investigation. This is not a light enjoyable read. For the person interested in the history of flight, the NTSB, or are pilots themselves, they would find it fascinating. I am none of the above, but must give the author credit for a well-investigated book. I was provided with a copy of the book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review