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.
About four years ago, when his youngest son went off to college, Clark decided to return to the cockpit. He knew there were additional risks associated with home-built planes -- the NTSB seldom sends investigators to examine crashes involving such aircraft because they are considered experimental.
But building such a plane would allow him to slash expenses. He also trusted his own handiwork as much as that of anyone in a factory.
So Clark settled on building a Van's RV-9A, a stable propeller-driven plane that can seat a pilot and one passenger.
He gingerly approached his wife about the project, first asking her if she would like French-style double doors installed on their basement entryway. When she said she liked the idea, Clark came out with the truth: He was going to turn the basement into an aircraft factory. (The double doors made it easier to get parts up and down the basement stairs.)
It took him three years to finish the plane, which he flew for the first time last September. Like other pilots at the NTSB, Clark displays photographs of his plane in his office, along with ones of his family.
He recently flew with a reporter from Culpeper Regional Airport, where he has a hangar, to West Virginia. His plane is sleek and fast, hitting about 180 mph at cruising speed. Its domed canopy offers beautiful views, and it handles with ease. Still, it's clear that the plane was assembled in somebody's basement, because the word "experimental" is stamped in the cockpit along with the warning that the aircraft doesn't comply with federal safety regulations.
Clark, 58, said he understands that his hobby is more dangerous than pursuits enjoyed by other men his age, such as golf or bowling. But he takes few unnecessary chances: He doesn't fly in bad weather, always has enough fuel and conducts a detailed preflight inspection.
"There are things you do to mitigate risk," he said, passing over West Virginia mountains at 6,000 feet. "But it would be a boring world without risk."
One of his top deputies, Tom Haueter, bought a beaten-up 1943 Stearman biplane in the early 1980s, then joined the NTSB as an investigator. He worked on his cloth-covered antique for years -- also in his basement -- before taking it for its first flight.
On a recent weekend morning, Haueter spent hours examining his plane's spark plugs to discover the source of a backfiring problem. He said he has to be extra careful in maintaining his plane, because his day job looms in the back of his mind. No safety board investigators have crashed in recent years, and he said he doesn't want to be the first.
"We do know where we work," he said, chuckling. "An accident would reflect back on it."
During major investigations, he often retreats to his hangar at the Culpeper airport to fly or fiddle with his plane. "At the end of the day at the office, I could come here and all of my worries would melt away," Haueter said.
"If I had my druthers, I would own 18 airplanes," he added, rattling off a list of jets and aerobatic and vintage planes that he'd like to have.
In the next five years or so, he will be adding another to his dream fleet. He and a buddy are rebuilding a 1934 Lockheed Altair, a four-seater that can cruise at 230 mph, about 140 mph faster than his Stearman.
Evan Byrne, chief of the NTSB's human performance division, said that being an investigator has made him a better pilot. He has a doctorate in psychology and specializes in determining what people did wrong in accidents.
To reduce his own risks, he bought a reliable Cessna 172 -- the Toyota Corolla of the skies -- with plenty of backup features. It came equipped with a global positioning system receiver and one that alerts him to nearby aircraft to reduce the threat of midair collisions. The plane has a computer that monitors his engine's performance and one that tracks his fuel burn. It also has a computerized checklist, making it difficult to take off without completing preflight inspections.
Byrne routinely reads investigation reports about crashes. A few months ago, he noticed that several planes had wrecked after engines failed during takeoff. Investigators later found large puddles of oil where the pilots had conducted their preflight engine run-ups, indicating that oil had drained out of the engines.
Byrne immediately added another item to his preflight list: Before hitting the skies, he routinely looks back to check for oil on the pavement.