Wednesday, September 24, 2014


            When United Airlines flight 232 slammed into the ground at the Sioux Falls, Iowa airport and exploded into a huge ball of flame on July 19, 1989, it became one of the most widely witnessed aviation disasters in history. The amateur video footage which captured and froze in time that terrible one minute of violence quickly blossomed on home television screens across the country and around the world; and it would be viewed repeatedly for months and even years to come. What the general public might at first have thought was just an emergency landing gone wrong was in fact the inevitable consequence of a cascade of events which had begun 35 minutes earlier and 60 miles to the east when the tail-mounted and central of the jumbo jet’s three engines exploded at 37,000 feet. In the process, all three of the plane’s supposedly redundant hydraulic lines were severed leaving the cockpit crew with no means of controlling the giant jet other than by adjusting power alternately to the two remaining wing-mounted engines. Without flaps and spoilers, the only option was to literally “fly” the plane onto the ground at 250 miles per hour, and pilot Al Haynes and his “front office” crew did a masterful job of pulling off what they did.
            That 184 of the plane’s 296 passengers survived the fiery impact was a miracle which still cannot be fully explained today.  That investigators were able to put together a jig-saw puzzle of bits and pieces spread across hundreds of square miles of space and months of time in order to solve a handful of aviation mysteries is the story behind the story; and the motivation for today’s column.
            The turbofan jet engine gets its name from the large (71/2 foot diameter) multi-blade fan which sits at the very front of a modern jet engine pulling in huge amounts of air to both feed and supplement the thrust of the fuel-driven jet behind it. It was this fan on the General Electric CF-6-6 engine mounted in the DC-10’s tail section which exploded on that July day high above Buena Vista County, Iowa, doing damage to surrounding components – including the illogically-routed hydraulic lines – before the 400-pound component departed for the earth far below, subject to the laws of gravity, wind, trajectory and sheer chance.
            In summer months, more than 12 million acres of Iowa countryside are clad in a rolling, green and nearly unbroken canopy of corn. To make searching conditions even worse, those tall rows of flowering stalks were engulfed in a nearly physical cloud of pollen dust during the weeks when thousands of citizen volunteers and law enforcement professionals were tasked with walking a grid pattern through miles of those breath-constricting rows in search of any piece of wreckage which might lead to the elusive fan hub in which the ultimate answers were believed to lie. Even a generous reward system failed to produce results as the trail grew cooler, while the use of low-flying helicopters only succeeded in angering farmers who watched their corn fields being blown into patches of mulch.
            While the airframe of the DC-10 with tail number N1819U had seen numerous engine changes in its nearly 20-year operating life, the particular GE engine in question had seen more than 15,000 cycles (landing/takeoffs) at a time when titanium-rich fan design represented a relatively-new technology. An entire industry awaited answers as one season morphed into another.
            On the afternoon of October 10th -- 83 days after UAL 232 and its pieces came to earth -- 58-year-old Janice Sorenson was driving her harvester down the corn rows near her home just north of Alta, Iowa when the machine ran up against something that shouldn’t have been there: the largest part of a disk partially buried in the rich Iowa soil. Two days later, a neighboring farmer, Harold Halverson found the rest of the 350-pound fan wheel less than two miles away, and the NTSB and a panel of waiting analysts finally had their “smoking gun.” And a surprised Janice Sorenson would receive a check for $116,000!
            The almost-microscopic flaw which had bloomed into a crack in the fan wheel’s titanium hub would lead to a whole new set of testing methods and standards, the DC-10’s hydraulic system would see major routing changes, and United and other air lines would alter the frequency and depth of engine testing and replacement protocols.
POST SCRIPT:   As a result of examining the life changes of Flight 232 survivors and their rescuers over the years following the incident, we learn that PTSD with all of its ramifications exists beyond the battlefield and is just as real.

Friday, September 12, 2014


            When Charles Augustus Lindbergh gazed down in the gathering dark on the huge crowd covering Paris’s Le Bourget aerodrome, he wondered if there was even room for him to land the Spirit of St. Louis amid that sea of upturned faces. From that history-making May 1927 evening onward, the young American aviator, nicknamed The Lone Eagle and beloved by an adoring public wherever he went, would never be entirely comfortable in the role of the world’s most famous person. His indifference to public popularity and open dislike for members of the media became even more pronounced after his marriage to a daughter of millionaire business tycoon Dwight Morrow, and especially after the kidnapping of his first son and the media circus it spawned. Lindbergh detested the playboy image others had constructed around his every coming and going. And come and go he did, traveling the world promoting aviation and the industries growing up around it. (As a young lad living in New Jersey within a short distance of the Dwight Morrow estate, the author knew the excitement of waving a “Hello Lindy” greeting as the Stutz  driven by the hero of every young American would drive by.)
            Lindbergh was not appreciated by everyone, and among the latter were the President – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and the entire White House staff. The “Lone Eagle” made no secret of his dislike for what he saw as a little-disguised drift toward socialism in the administration and he spoke loudly and frequently on the subject. Matters became much worse when Lindbergh became associated with the America First Committee in his outspoken opposition to any direct involvement in the unfolding European War, (a position which in 1940 was shared by a large segment of American society.) Because he was a frequent guest of such German WW I aviators as Ernst Udet and Hermann GÓ§ring it was easy for his detractors to label him as “pro-German”. In fact so discredited did he feel at the time that he voluntarily resigned his Colonelcy in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
            After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh wanted desperately to serve his country, but found himself “black-balled” by the Administration at every turn, until Henry Ford, who was not cowed by any politician, asked him to find out why the B-24 Liberator bombers coming off his Willow Run assembly plant were so easily falling prey in battle. Hired as a consultant, “Lindy” ended up relocating gun positions in the plane, completely reshaping Ford’s production line, and saving the great warplane from an early demise thus changing the air war in Europe. Next he was asked by United Aviation (Chance-Vought) to find out why the Corsair fighter plane – mainstay of the navy and marine air war in the pacific – was not performing as expected in combat. This finally led him to the front lines as he quickly learned the art of flying in combat, actually developing dive-bombing techniques which saved American lives while drastically advancing the campaign to isolate the Japanese garrison at Rabaul in New Britain.
            With the political walls now broached, he was next asked by Lockheed Aircraft to find out why Army Air Corps pilots seemed unable to come to grips with the challenge of mastering the highly-touted but difficult to fly twin-engine twin-boomed P-38 Lightning high-altitude fighter in MacArthur’s Western Pacific campaign. Here Lindbergh hit his pace, flying daily combat missions with the 475th Fighter Group whose young pilots at first wondered just how this 45-year-old 1st world war veteran could even keep up with them.
            In the end the civilian Lindbergh not only taught them how to fly the P-38, but soon found himself acting as a squadron commander on many missions (kept secret from the politicians in Washington,) while winning the respect of MacArthur and his front line air commanders for his leadership skills. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort came from his discovery of how to extend the P-38’s range by at least 400 miles by managing manifold pressure and fuel flow in a technique he was then asked to teach to other groups and which made possible fighter protection all the way to Tokyo for U.S. bombers.  It is believed that this one change in tactics did more to save American lives and speed an end to the war in the Pacific than any other single engineering innovation.

The Allison V-1710 turbo-charged engine which powered the P-38 Lightning was the only indigenous U.S.-made V-12 engine of WWII.  70,000 were built.                                                                                                                      Al Cooper Photo

            The most carefully protected “secret” of Charles Lindbergh’s  secret war took place on July 28th, 1944, when his determined efforts to avoid personal air combat came to an end when he was engaged by Captain Saburo Shimada, one of Japan’s most famous fighter aces. Not only did he end his Pacific campaign by flying more than 50 combat missions, but he capped it off by shooting down a Japanese Zero flown by one of the enemy’s most celebrated airmen.
            I only wish I could call back those carefree days of the 1930s so that I could once again shout “Hi Lindy” to that “lone eagle” passing through our town.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


            Throughout the “old” New England where I grew up, as in much of the rest of small-town America, there were two symbolic pieces of architecture you would expect to see in every village, town and hamlet: a white church with a tall steeple reaching heavenward, and an outdoor bandstand at the center of the village green. I use the word symbolic here in the truest sense of the term’s meaning, because at the heart of this column’s import lies a message larger than its more obvious history lesson.
            The people who settled this land we call America carried with them a simple, but highly-personal and firmly-implanted religious faith which anchored them in every pioneering step they undertook, in good times and in bad. At significant expense and great individual sacrifice they usually built a church as their first public structure, and over my years of quiet but thoughtful roaming, I have learned to pause and consider the too-easily-forgotten message intrinsic in every field-stone foundation and hand-hung window frame of these sacred meeting places.  I think of one such structure, now more than 200 years old, whose granite steps carry the unmistakable cupping wear of the thousands and thousands of leather shoes worn by generations of parishioners who have worshipped, been christened, married, and wished a final farewell within its white-washed walls and beneath its meticulously-maintained steeple. I love another in which religious services are held only occasionally now, but whose carefully cleaned and trimmed kerosene lamps still light evening vespers which bring together worshippers from far and wide to sing old hymns accompanied on a hand-pump organ. (The mountain town folk promise it will never be electrified.)
            Almost as important as their faith to early Americans was their appreciation of drama and cultural expression. With access to the great symphony halls and opera houses of the day only a distant dream for most, they capitalized on the talent in their midst, and concerts in the park or on the village green became a key part of village life. In time, most small towns erected a bandstand as artfully-crafted and dutifully-maintained as their churches, usually open on all sides and situated with a 360 degree audience in mind.
            One day, while acting as tour guides for one of our annual New England safaris, we happened – by chance – upon such a gathering assembled on the green sloping lawns fronting Vermont’s capitol dome in Montpelier. We were lucky to find a parking place for our van as hundreds upon hundreds of local citizens arrived from all directions to vie for a place to cast a blanket or lawn chair as band members took their places on a prominent dale. I had cautioned our travel group that we could not stay long without compromising our daily schedule; but that was before the collection of home-grown brass players, fifers, drummers and an age-defiant string section began to play. I was impressed first of all by the unexpected virtuosity of such a random collection of performers, and without a single written score in evidence other than that of the conductor. And then came the recognition of an audience so obviously stirred by the music filling the air that they broke into spontaneous song themselves from time to time, and rose to their feet in an indescribable display of patriotism as the notes of the Star-Spangled Banner capped an hours-long program of surprising diversity. As I wiped the tears from my eyes I noticed that everyone within sight was doing the same thing. And no one, including our tour group was in any hurry to go home.
            In a recent article in Down East magazine, I read with sadness how such “concerts in the park” are disappearing from even the most “traditional” of communities as musicians age, funding dries up, and changes in the dynamics of family life place new limitations on that element we call “time.” And in those historic white-steepled country churches, choir seats go too often unfilled for all the same reasons.

:  Typical of New England’s country churches is this one in which Al & Shirley Cooper were wed nearly 61 years ago.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Al Cooper Photo