February 17, 2004 Tuesday

ANATOMY OF A CRASH

BY David Bianculli

Daily News (New York)
Copyright 2004 Daily News, L.P.


In solving air mystery, a special raises troubling new questions.

Like a topnotch episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," tonight's installment of the PBS science series "Nova" presents a captivating examination of a deadly mystery.

In this case, though, the deaths are real, and the solution, when it finally arrives, is as much infuriating and frightening as satisfying. "Crash of Flight 111" follows the patient, painstaking investigation into the baffling 1998 loss of the Swissair passenger jet, traveling from New York to Geneva.

It plunged suddenly into the ocean after reporting an unexplained malfunction. The pilots, having already radioed an alert about an apparently minor problem with smoke aboard the plane, had circled back to dump excess fuel off the coast of Nova Scotia before heading to Halifax to attempt an emergency landing.

After six minutes of radio silence, the plane slammed into the water, instantly killing all 229 people aboard. The flight-recorder black boxes in the cockpit (one recording data, the other the voices of the pilots) were found at the bottom of the ocean - two of the more than 2 million pieces of debris eventually recovered during a multi-year search.

But in what was just one of many maddening dead ends and puzzling mysteries, the recorders, like the pilots' transmissions to air-traffic controllers, stopped suddenly six minutes before the crash. Canada's Transportation Safety Board took on the task of reconstructing the plane, and deconstructing the disaster.

Flight 111 was rebuilt virtually, in a computer simulation, at the same time it was rebuilt physically. Pieces of the plane were analyzed to estimate how much heat they had been exposed to before hitting the icy ocean, and for how long - a lengthy logistical hunt that eventually revealed the source of the fire, but not its origin.

Before investigators determined how the fire started, they were shocked to learn how it spread. The cabin insulation used then, and still used by most American planes, turns out to be not a flame retardant, as was thought, but dangerously combustible.

"Crash of Flight 111" will leave you satisfied that the investigations of such horrifying crashes are in the best of hands. It's also liable to leave you horrified that the accident in question could have been avoided - and, at this writing, is in danger of being repeated, because the same conditions exist not only in current planes, but in many now being built.

This "Nova" is a scientific and TV triumph. It's a story, unfortunately, of one tragedy compounded by another.

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