Not Just Winging It

Tom Haueter, with his Stearman biplane, is among several aviation inspectors with the National Transportation Safety Board who are avid pilots.
Tom Haueter, with his Stearman biplane, is among several aviation inspectors with the National Transportation Safety Board who are avid pilots. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

John O'Callaghan says a prayer and straps on his parachute each time before taking off in his aerobatic Bellanca Citabria. Then he does loops, spins, stalls, tight turns and other maneuvers over the Potomac River, pushing his cloth-covered plane to its limits. His Citabria has a plexiglass ceiling so he can see the ground during flips.

O'Callaghan isn't a professional stunt pilot, however.

He is a top aviation safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, an engineer who has examined some of the most deadly accidents in recent history. He knows that a single in-flight mistake can lead to catastrophe.

"If you are not careful and respectful of this stuff, it will kill you," said O'Callaghan, 38, during a preflight check early last month before taking a reporter for a spin. "If a wing breaks off in a loop, well, that is too bad. As long as it's not because I didn't maintain the plane right. That would upset me."

Like more than a dozen top investigators and officials at the NTSB, which examines fatal air crashes in the United States, O'Callaghan loves flying. He tries to squeeze in flights before or after work or on weekends. He and other investigators say they understand that flying small propeller planes can be risky.

But they can't help themselves. They are addicted -- some even build or reconstruct aircraft in their basements. The NTSB's top aviation safety official built an experimental plane with a cockpit plaque that reads: "Passenger Warning. This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with the federal safety regulations for standard aircraft."

Although most haven't gotten much flying in since a Comair commuter jet crashed in Kentucky on Aug. 27, the aficionados said they accept the risks, because they fell in love with flying before joining the NTSB. Piloting small planes has also made them better investigators, they said, giving them an invaluable and personal perspective into what might go wrong in a cockpit.

"It's like a chef who doesn't eat his own food," said O'Callaghan, who used his own plane to reenact pilots' responses before an American Airlines jet crashed in Belle Harbor, N.Y., in late 2001, killing 265 people. "You need to experience it."

NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, a political appointee who considers himself a British car guy and is not a pilot, said he appreciates having investigators who take their work home with them.

"These are crusty old investigators who have seen it all," said Rosenker, describing a litany of serious wrecks that his investigators have studied. "But their eyes light up when they are talking about their airplanes. It's really a wonderful thing to see."

John Clark, the board's top aviation safety investigator, wanted to be a fighter pilot, but poor eyesight kept him out of the military. After getting his aeronautical engineering degree, he picked up his private pilot's license and spent his free time building and flying gliders.

Eventually, he found his way to the NTSB. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, he abandoned flying because he ran into two major obstacles: It can be expensive and time-consuming.

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