Book Review

Air Disaster (Vol. 1)
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Air Disaster (Vol. 1)

By: MacArthur Job

Paperback - 186 pages
Published by: Australian Aviation
Publication Date: January 1995
Dimensions (in inches): 0.34 x 10.91 x 8.27
ISBN: 1875671110

Our Review

While not directly related to plant maintenance, the Air Disaster series of books is a "must read" for anybody interested in failure analysis and forensic engineering. The airline industry frequently leads the world in the application of maintenance engineering techniques - Reliability Centered Maintenance principles originated there, for example - and there is a lot that we can learn from their approach to failure investigation, even if our failures aren't quite so spectacular, or so public, as theirs. These books are light, easy reading, but provide sufficient detail to satisfy even the most inquisitive engineer. They are hard to put down once you have started reading!

The Air Disaster series of books - there are currently three in the series - focus on describing and analysing significant civil aviation air crashes of recent times. Each of the volumes has a slightly different emphasis, but each of them contains an immense amount of detail describing the accidents, describing the investigations that followed, and then analysing the causes. The books draw chiefly on the findings of official investigations, but are complemented by additional research from various sources. The text is complemented by plenty of photographs and diagrams (provided by Matthew Tesch) which are fascinating in their own right, but which bring the descriptive text to life, and make it very easy to understand the sequence of events that led to these tragedies.

The first of these books - Volume 1, concentrates on 18 serious crashes in the first 25 years of the jet age, and includes incidents such as the early Comet disasters, where engineers grappled with the problems of metal structures, pressurisation and fatigue for the first time. It also covers the problems encountered in several spectacular DC-10 crashes, due to problems with the cockpit door. The world's worst air disaster, the collision between a PanAm 747 and a KLM 747 at Teneriffe is also described and anlysed in detail. While each of the disasters described has its own unique causes, the general feeling that arises from reading this book is that these early crashes were largely caused by engineering design issues - particularly related to aircraft structures.

Volume 2 covers 13 accidents from 1977 to 1991, and includes three specific accidents where the causes can be put down to inadequate, or unsafe maintenance practices. The first is the 1989 crash of United Airlines flight 232 at Sioux City, where a catastrophic engine failure led to complete loss of hydraulic fluid from the aircraft, and almost complete loss of control of the aircraft. The second is the crash of a Japan Airlines 747 in Japan, due to faulty repair on a rear pressure bulkhead. The third is the loss of a Lauda Air 767 over Thailand, due to corrosion on an undercarriage actuator switch. This volume is probably the most interesting for those interested in mechanical equipment failures - the feeling arising from this volume is that a significant proportion of accidents during this time were due to failures of mechanical componentry.

Volume 3 covers more recent accidents between 1988 and 1994. With few exceptions, the 13 accidents covered here are mostly the result of "pilot error" - or more accurately due to a breakdown in the man-machine interface. A large number of the accidents outlined here could have been avoided if the pilots had properly understood their aircraft systems - particularly if they had understood how their auto-pilots worked. This raises an interest question for systems design - are we now designing equipment that is too complex for humans - even highly trained pilots - to safely operate? What are the implications for those people that are designing highly automated oil refineries, or nuclear power stations? Specific accidents covered here include the Aeroflot A310 which crashed enroute to Hong Kong, with the pilot's son occupying the pilot seat. This is something of a coup, as the facts (as distinct from what was reported in the popular press) of this accident were not available outside Russia before the publication of this book. The one accident in the book that was caused by component failure is the 1989 crash of a United Airlines 747 bound from Honolulu to Auckland, which suffered major in-flight decompression due to a faulty switch or wiring in a cargo door control system. It is now coming to light that more and more incidents are being caused by electrical system failure, in particular, failure of the insulation on wiring. This is being exacerbated by the fact that aircraft are flying for longer than was originally intended when they were designed. An electrical wiring failure is a possible, although as yet unproven, cause of the crash of TWA 800 during the 1996 Olympics. Is this a portent of things to come in our aging industrial plants?

Overall, I recommend reading all three volumes in the series - you will get something valuable out of each one, and they are easy reading.

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