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PUBLISHED: 13:42 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 14:09 10 October 2012

FLIGHT 427: ANATOMY OF AN AIR DISASTER by Gerry Byrne (Copernicus Books)

FLIGHT 427: ANATOMY OF AN AIR DISASTER by Gerry Byrne(Copernicus Books)Review by Ian DaviesFor most of us, the enduring memory of an air disaster is the big image – flames shooting from the rear of Concorde or the cabin area wreckage of the 747 at Lockerbie. For the investigators responsible for identifying the cause of a crash, it is the small details that are most important. A slight noise on the cockpit voice recording or a small shard of metal in a component can start a chain of thought processes that leads to a definitive finding.

Most accidents eventually yield their cause to the skilled analysis of the air accident investigators but some investigations remain inconclusive. So it was with Flight 427, a Boeing 737 that crashed into a hillside outside Pittsburgh in 1994. The accident bore some similarities to the crash of a 737 at Colorado Springs three years earlier. The cause of both accidents was to prove difficult to identify, with controversy and disagreement at every turn.

In Flight 427, aviation journalist Gerry Byrne gathers the output from over eight years of investigation and analysis to tell a compelling story of misery, frustration, commercial protection and forensic science. The story starts moments before the crash of United Flight 585 in 1991 and ends with continuing questions and uncertainty. The story raises doubts about the safety record of the workhorse of the worldwide short-haul fleet.

The two accidents that feature prominently in this book involve aircraft that suddenly rolled onto their backs and hit the ground in a vertical dive. In both cases there were no obvious causes. Speculation ranged from wake turbulence, wind shear and pilot error to a faulty component in the rudder control mechanism. The various interested parties from Boeing to the pilots’ union and the FAA all had their theories. The NTSB, which was responsible for identifying the cause, had to tread a fine line between the vigorously argued positions. Their final report stated only that the probably cause was a ‘…loss of control of the airplane resulting from the movement of the rudder surface…’ It went on to say that, ‘The rudder surface most likely deflected in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots…’

The findings were so open as to allow other possible interpretations and were not conclusive enough to cause the FAA to order an immediate replacement of a specific part or system. It was only after a further round of tests that the FAA issued an AD, in 2001, dealing with a potentially unsafe condition in the 737 rudder control system that can cause the rudder to jam hard over and to respond in the opposite direction to that commanded by the pilot. In the USA, the 737 fleet will not be fully modified until around 2007.

Reading Flight 427 you can’t help feeling that Gerry Byrne suffers from the same problems as the NTSB. This is a story without a clear end. Byrne is not in a position to speculate or apportion blame. Any good mystery needs a hero, a baddie and a conclusion. Like the NTSB report, this book can’t deliver.

Despite this, the book offers a fascinating, and often gory, insight into the processes involved in trying to identify the cause of an air crash that appears to defy all logic.If you can get past the frequent descriptions of what an aileron does (I counted ten) and the frequent cross-referencing of one incident to another, this book is a worthwhile read. The chances of it making it past the corporate lawyers to become a film are slight – how do you disguise the maker of the world’s most popular short-haul aircraft to avoid the lawsuits? So your best chance to access the story is through these 278 well-researched pages.

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