Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Facebook Kinda' Investigation

The proliferation of cameras isn't just food for the bottomless pit that is You Tube. Very, very soon, air accident investigators will be saying a big "Thank You" to the army of people armed with iPods, smart phones, and digital cameras who are recording aviation accidents. They are already a source of valuable investigative data.

Need I remind you of the close encounter of the behemoth kind at JFK Airport this past April? The Air France A380 whacked a Delta Connection commuter plane, while inside the terminal someone recorded the whole thing.

It was the bump heard - correction - seen 'round the world. But it was far from the first, or even the most dramatic video caught by a bystander that turns out to be beneficial to the folks who try to understand why accidents happen.

Major Adam Cybanski
At the conference of air safety investigators meeting in Salt Lake City this week, Major Adam Cybanski of Canada's National Defense Forces, held this morning's audience spellbound as he showed how videos taken by news photographers and spectators at a Canadian air show practice session, captured the crash of an F-18 Hornet in the summer of 2010.

The videos - there were three - recorded the horrific and irreversible bank and plunge of the jet at low altitude, the pilot's quick decision to eject from the plane and the fiery explosion a split second later as the plane impacts the ground. 

Sure, this makes for compelling viewing. But its greater significance is in showing how, by using tools both old and new, Major Cybanski was able to understand the plane's flight path and even how some critical control surfaces were moving in the seconds prior to the accident. This was critical information as there was no flight data recorder on the airplane.

"We're in the age of the You Tube generation," Major Cybanski told the audience. "There is video everywhere, iPods, iPhones. I see the investigative capabilities expanding."

In a report for The New York Times in February 2010, I wrote about the crash of a Cessna 310 from an airport in Palo Alto, California. The NTSB investigator was assisted by a municipal audio tape system that recorded the sounds of the accident.

A test flight gone awry at Edwards Air Force base in California, a mid air collision in New York, an air show crash in Poland, a hot air balloon fire in Canada these were among the first of what is already becoming an exponentially expanding library of disasters caught on tape.

Major Cybanski isn't the only one talking about pushing the envelope of our digital age.

Image from presentation of Michiel Schurrman Dutch Safety Board
Michiel Schuurman of the Dutch Safety Board and Paul Farrell of Ireland's AAIU are turning airport radar data into a visual simulation of actual airport conditions in order to examine runway incursions, weather over the airfield and other events. Watching their presentation was like viewing a real-life episode of CSI where keyboards and digit-filled spreadsheets are manipulated by eggheads until voila, the mystery is unraveled. 

Twitter, You Tube and all the rest? Don't scoff. The digital age is pushing tin kicking in a new and promising direction.  It's exciting to see.
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