The odds of being in a fatal plane crash are about 10 million to one, but that doesn't allay some people's fears. Only a small percentage of flights never make it to their destinations, and as the Weather Channel series "Why Planes Crash" illustrates, in some of those bad weather is at least partly to blame.
"About 10 percent of airline accidents are caused by weather and in this season many of our stories will address how weather plays a role," says Capt. John M. Cox, an aviation analyst and expert who appears in the series, which begins its second season Dec. 15.
"We have 24 new stories that investigate different kinds of aviation disasters, and we use high quality animations to help tell the story," says series executive producer Keith McKay. "Each one-hour episode focuses on a theme, like flying in severe weather, communication problems that turn deadly and pilots that rely too much on automation. This season we also branch out to include small planes and helicopters, which have their own set of dangers."
In choosing what stories to include, McKay considers, "Is there something about an accident that helped improved aviation safety? If the answer is yes, then we are interested in the story. By combining experts, witnesses and survivors we tell the story in a balanced way. Some survivors find talking about the accident too painful, but most realize that it is a story that should be told."
McKay points out that although accidents are rare, "In today's 24/7 news cycle people hear about them. This series provides access to how the investigations were conducted, giving the traveling public insight they would not have any other way. The stories are also incredibly dramatic. The graphic animations really put you there and when you combine them with survivors telling their stories it goes far beyond any news report you could read or see."
Analysis of the official reports reveal probable causes, and "it's almost never just one factor," McKay continues. "Sometimes the report is disputed, and we talk about that, but we always want to tell the audience how it happened, deconstructing the many factors that can bring down a plane by using realistic graphics that are extensively researched and reviewed by John Cox. NTSB reports can be complex, so explaining each crash to a television audience can be a challenge for the producers. By limiting our shows to accidents with published reports we provide the highest quality of information to the audience. We work hard to minimize the speculation and show the facts."
"Human error is often cited in accident reports," says Cox. "This must be viewed carefully. Pilots are the last line of defense. Therefore actions they take are often cited, appropriately. But what contributed to the event prior to the crew error? This question is important to understand the full complexity of an event. It is also significant that a design error is a human error, but is often not cited as such. A statistical review shows that human error is involved in approximately 80 percent of accidents in one form or another and most, if not all, weather accidents have some human error included.
"Reviewing accidents have shown the weaknesses in design, operations and training," Cox continues. An example was the implementation of Crew Resource Management following the United 173 accident in Portland, Oregon. Since that accident crew decision-making has been improved as shown by the remarkable success of the crew of United 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. Looking at the continuous improvement in the accident and fatality rate, it is clear that the lessons are being learned and the mitigation is working."
Cox notes that in preventing crashes in the future, "Better design processes, better computer interfaces and underlying mode clarity and ongoing improvement in procedures will continue to reduce the errors. Furthermore, recognizing that errors will occur and designing systems to trap the errors before they result in an incident or accident will benefit aviation safety."
"Flying is the safest form of public transportation," McKay emphasizes. "Statistics show your drive to the airport is far more dangerous than the flight you’re trying to catch. We show some of the rare times when things go wrong, but we also show how those lessons were learned to improve safety in our skies today and tomorrow."
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