Q: When I first met you and asked you what you did for a living you said -- and it was quite humorless and very quiet -- you said, "I listen to people die." Do you still say that?
A: Yes, perhaps. I listen on the tape recorders to people sometimes making mistakes, sometimes not making mistakes, and sometimes fighting for their lives. But much of the time, yes, I'm with them when they go.
Q: Is listening to the tape the first time through ever hard on you?
A: No. It's more curiosity the first couple of times through. It's a little later on that it sometimes reaches you and you begin to see the conversation more in its depth and then you can see where a mistake might have been made or where the accident could have been averted perhaps, and then it does bother you.
Q: Do you think much about the passengers and crew?
A: No, I try and think very little about the passengers and the crew. I try and think of the machine and the men that are flying the machine. I like to think of being able to make it easier for the next man to fly the next machine rather than this last one. I look to the future rather than look to the past.
Q: Is it possible to fix an average number of times you'll listen to a tape before you're satisified?
A: No. Some tapes have good audio. The conversation and what went on in the cockpit is quite understandable. Then maybe it doesn't take nearly as much time as if you have a mystery in there somewhere. That is particularly noticeable when there is no real answer on the tape -- where the aircraft is flying along and very little is said and then the next thing it's broken up in the air or it's blown up or whatever.
Q: Do you have a method of listening? Do you try to put yourself in the cockpit and recreate and revisualize things as they happen?
A: You just can't separate yourself from the cockpit when you have flown, because you understand what's going on. Flying is very much like a dance in that you anticipate what is coming up next. So you're looking for it and you're expecting to find it on the tape. And if you don't you wonder why. I guess it's at that point that you say okay, there is something wrong.
Q: Do you work on instinct or is it all by the book?
A: Much of it is on instinct.
Q: What would be some examples?
A: The 14th Street bridge accident investigation in which a 737 didn't have enough power -- the Air Florida crash. There were two portions in there that made us wonder what was going on. One of them was the fact that the aircraft did not seem to have enough power. That began as an instinctive feeling and as we begin to examine it further using the laboratory equipment we found out that indeed it did not have enough power. The second portion of that was the strange way that the crew was discussing the problems they were having with the engine. It seemed to change on them while they were sitting on the ramp. First the left engine, or one of the engines, changed and then one of the other engines changed. At that particular time we were wondering just what they were talking about. Why were the engines changing? What were they seeing on the engines that gave them this unusual feeling in the cockpit? Later on when we found that the engines didn't have enough power we went out to Boeing and had the test confirmed and it immediately became (clear) what had happened. Those two times on the tape were the times that the pressure probes had iced. So we knew the exact instant of the icing of the probe on the airplane.
Q: Have you ever brought any of the tapes home with you?
A: If there's a particularly interesting passage that we've been working on for hours in the laboratory I might stick it in my cassette player in the car and listen to it a number of times while it's background to traffic. And sometimes the information will come out.
While you're listening to tapes in a laboratory environment, you're sitting there staring at the speakers, staring at the machine or holding a headset and trying to understand what's going on. Frequently I find that some of my most insightful actitivies are while I'm doing some other job and playing the tape in the background; then all of a sudden I will begin to recognize what is actually being said. Even moving around the room will give you a different insight as to what's coming on over the tape.
This happens with almost all of the tapes. Five or six passages will be bothering us because maybe the captain or the co-pilot will have turned away from the microphone. So you're not really hearing what he's saying, but you know he's saying something, and it's something there in the background. I'll put it in an area where I can play it in the background while I'm working perhaps on some other portion of the tape. Every once in a while it will come through loud and clear. It will come through, too, sometimes if I'm in another room and if the tape is being listened to by, say, members of a group in the back room. The room or my distance, perhaps, from the speaker tends to filter the noise out.
The strange thing about this, once it comes through clear and you know what it says, there's no question in your mind that that's what they said.
Q: Where does the term "kicking tin" come from?
A: I don't know where it originated. It's one we've been using for a long time in the accident investigating field. When you go out in the field to investigate an accident, the field is full of tin -- full of aluminum parts of airplanes. So you go out there and turn over every one of them to see what's on the other side, to see if there is something you can see that might give you a clue as to what occurred. It's not being done quite so crudely anymore but the term still sticks.
Q: From all appearances, air safety investigator means that youre part engineer, part detective and part mortician. How would you define the job?
A: I'd say yes to the first two, but I have very little to do with the mortician portion of it. I stay as far away from that as possible. It's just not my job. And when I have been out to accidents it's not pretty and I don't particularly like it.
Q: Do you think your experience as a prisoner of war in Korea influenced your feelings about life and death?
A: It might have. It's sort of traumatic to get shot down and bail out. So I sort of felt for a while that everything was gravy. When you get close to death in a situation like this you realize how it can happen to anybody, crossing the street or doing whatever they're doing in their everyday existence. It gave me a little insight that says, "Don't sweat it. It's going to happen to all of us one of these days." Some sooner, some later.
Q: What about the job appealed to you when the NSTB offered it to you?
A: I enjoyed the detective work and working with airplanes. I've worked with them all my life.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your job?
A: One of the most difficult portions is to have something on the tape that you can't get off there and you feel that it may be the clue to the accident. Try as you will you're not satisfied that you have the words.
The other frustrating thing is the obvious. If you know the guy made a mistake on board the airplane or if something failed on the airplane that could have been fixed that perhaps you'd found before and it was not repaired or not fixed. Say, for instance, flying into a thunderstorm. The guy is going to make a landing at some airport and you're listening to the tape and you're beginning to see from the other people's conversations around -- on other radio channels -- that other people are having problems. That the winds have increased drastically at the airport. That there's a definite indication of wind shear even though it's not stated. That they can see the roil cloud over the approach end of the airport but they feel that they can go under it and land the airplane. You say, "Oh no, don't try it." Yet while I can sit here and say this while I'm in the cockpit with him and landing at that airport, I have torealize from my own background that there are many times when I did this, there was no problem and I landed successfully.
Q: Is there an easy part to your job?
A: Perhaps the easiest portion of it is the spectrum analysis of the signal traces. This I do myself in the laboratory and I don't have to interface with other people and run the group.
I don't sit there in a vacuum and do all this work myself. I have a group that assists me of people from the accident investigation staff of Douglas or Fokker or Boeing or some other company. I'll have people there from the airlines, and people who have flown with the pilot. It's particularly good when I have people who've flown with and know the pilot because then they can identify his voice and inflection and tell what he's feeling. They can tell us if he happens to have a particular way of describing something using words that I don't normally use.
Right now, we have an accident working where we've found a woman who flew with the pilot. The pilot and the co-pilot in this particular case died and we want to find out more about how they conducted themselves in the cockpit. We're going to have her listen to the tape and then we're going to interrogate her as to what she experienced during the time she was flying.
Q: These people that help you identify voices. They're not trained professionals. Do they ever have a difficult time listening to the tapes?
A: We've had a couple of times when they've had difficulties. Particularly if they're close friends of the accident victims. But by and large, once they get in the laboratory they realize that we're not trying to hang the pilot, not trying to find out what he was doing the night before or anything else. All I'm interested in is the facts about that airplane and that airplane's accident and his interface with the airplane.
Then the people understand and enter in with gusto. Women are particularly good in there. I don't know why. I've had two particular cases now where I've called in women specifically to assist me and they have done an excellent job. They can hear things that are going on and people talking in the background where the rest of us just sat around with our mouths open.
Q: Got a theory on that?
A: I don't know. We had one particular case where a captain came in and asked if his wife, a stewardess, could listen to the tape. He hadn't died, obviously. Nobody had died in the accident and there was just one airplane rather bent and burnt. She was fabulous. She could tell what her husband was thinking -- literally. She would hear a couple of words and the husband would say, "Well I said this and I guess I was talking about flying training or something," and she would say, "No dear, you said this." She was right every time.
Q: It doesn't sound like there's a wide or any margin for error in your work. One word misinterpreted can really change things.
A: That's right. So we don't like to put it down unless it's very accurate.
Q: How do you decide what material to edit from the tapes before releasing them?
A: We edit very little. The tapes come out normally within 60 days of the accident and things are still a little sensitive in terms of the families. So if there's something in there that's questionable we will leave it out, although I can only think of one time and then it could very well have been left in the tape. But particularly -- religious people sometimes have a bit of a problem. We like to edit out the cuss words, if you will.
Q: Accidents don't happen every day. What do you do at work when you have time on your hands?
A: We repair or change equipment. There seems to be some sort of accident that we're working on nearly all of the time.
Q: You're known both to your friends and colleagues as a fun and outgoing sort of person. You also have a T-shirt that reads, "He who dies with the most toys, wins." Is that your basic philosophy, would you say?
A: My kids have seen that I do like a lot of diverse things. Christopher, my youngest son, found this T-shirt down in Georgetown and he said, "That's gotta be Dad's." We ski and we have tape recorders. It's part of just being aware of what's going on around you.
Q: If there is a cheap curiosity in your life, would it be electronics or with things electrical? I notice you have a lot of sound equipment around your home.
A: I've always been very interested in sound and audio, yes. And I've always been very interested in flying. My interests will come and go in certain areas. I'll be intensely interested in photography at one time, for instance. I have a little photo lab there at home. Pretty soon that will wane and I'll become interested, let's say in television. I've taken television courses and I built that big television that's down in the basement there for the kids. Next I'll get interested in audio. I tend to learn pretty much of what I can about one item for a while and then go on to another.
Psychologists first listened to some tapes and they expected to hear panic and hysteria and they found that the opposite was true, that crews, pilots have a remarkable strength in the face of death, a refusal to give in. Were you thinking the same sort of thing when you were shot down? I mean, I'm not going to die.
That's what you think about, because you're responsible for yourself in that airplane and so you're going to work until the end (to) save yourself and your airplane. No pilot wants to die, obviously. They don't go out there with this idea in mind.
Q: Have you ever been shaken by a tape?
A: I've been shaken sometimes after I've heard the tape a number of times and I'm becoming, if you will, friendly with the crew, becoming a part of the crew. There just seems to be some area there that I sould be able to tell them, "Hey, don't do it." Sometimes, yes, it will bother me.
Q: Those moments really must be private, because your colleagues have never noticed this.
A: When that occurs, I simply leave the room. That's all.
Q: Are there any tapes or last words in particular that stick in your mind, haunt you?
A: There's the classic of course, that we see on so many tapes. Just before an event occurs, somebody generally says, "Oh, shit." I see that more perhaps than I see any two words. You sit right there with them and you'd say the same thing.