Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, a Democrat from California, was inaccurately identified as a Republican in an article about airline safety last Saturday.
The year of the crash started New Year's Day with an accident almost everyone has forgotten because the number of fatalities is not as numbing as 520 or 329. An Eastern Air Lines jetliner, unaccountably off course, slammed into a Bolivian mountaintop and killed all 29 on board.
Since then, there have been 11 accidents involving U.S. commercial airliners large and small and at least three other accidents worldwide.
The death toll exceeds 1,400, and by some counts goes as high as 1,900 in 19 accidents. No one in aviation remembers any other year like it.
"If I could answer the question of why, there wouldn't be accidents," said Federal Aviation Administrator Donald D. Engen. "It's very worrisome."
However, he noted, "Not any two of this year's accidents really have a common thread."
Nonetheless, Engen has ordered his inspectors to turn up the heat on U.S. airlines and wrote airline executives this week that he expects each of them to keep close watch on their operations and maintenance.
The politicians are in a race to get out front, with many hearings scheduled on Capitol Hill amid calls for reform at the Federal Aviation Administration, which is often characterized as a slow-moving and reactive agency, not as a vigorous, consumer-protecting regulator.
Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole announced Wednesday she was seeking more money to hire airline inspectors just about the time Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (R-Calif.), chairman of an aviation subcommittee, won House approval to amend an appropriations bill to do the same thing.
There is no evidence that fear of flying has reached the point that people are not making trips, even if it seems subjectively that there are more farewell hugs than usual at the door to the jetway.
U.S. airlines in August carried paying passengers 30.9 billion miles -- more than in any previous month in history. Traffic was up 11.9 percent over the same month a year earlier and up 13 percent for the first eight months of this year over the same period last year. More than 1 million passengers climb aboard 14,000 U.S. flights a day.
U.S. officials take little comfort in the fact that the two worst air disasters this year involved foreign carriers, partly because both occurred on U.S.-built airplanes carrying U.S. citizens.
"Aviation is now perceived on an international basis, not just the United States," an industry official said. "An accident in England or Japan is instantly reported, is on the evening television news and people relate quickly. They don't worry about whose airline it was." The U.S. trio of Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed has manufactured 90 percent of the world's airliner fleet, excluding communist bloc countries.
Air crash investigators from Tokyo to Manchester to Milwaukee are comparing notes, listening to tapes and studying engineering drawings to pin down the specifics of structural, mechanical and human failure that led to some of the disasters.
Weather and the work of a terrorist are suspected in the others, but the discipline of crash investigation does not accept suspicion or undue haste -- a circumstance that is antithetical to the quick-solution needs of the record number of journalists covering the disasters.
Last weekend's Midwest Express crash in Milwaukee, where 31 were killed, would have attracted only the wire services, local newspapers and television had it occurred last year, coincidentally the safest in civil aviation history.
But this year, the crash drew all major networks, a host of local television crews and reporters from as far away as Atlanta, and newspaper reporters from several Wisconsin cities as well as Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn.
A brief review of the major accidents underlines Engen's point that there appears to be no common thread.
The worst single-plane crash in aviation history is the Japan Air Lines Boeing 747, which hit a mountain Aug. 12 after 30 minutes of barely controlled flight, killing 520 of the 524 aboard. The tail of the plane was badly damaged shortly after takeoff, although it is not clear how.
The investigation centers on the sufficiency of a 1978 repair to the rear wall of the plane's passenger compartment, the aft pressure bulkhead. Boeing has said that the repair, which Boeing made, was faulty. It is known that the bulkhead collapsed at some point during the crash, possibly as the cabin was being pressurized while the plane climbed into rarefied higher altitudes. It is not known if the faulty repair caused the collapse.
The Air India disaster that killed 329 on June 23 also involved a Boeing 747 and also remains officially a mystery, although a terrorist group has claimed credit for smuggling a bomb on board the flight from Montreal to New Delhi through London.
An international investigating team has yet to prove that a bomb was involved, although it has yet to disprove the same thing.
The robot submarine that recovered the plane's flight recorders has been used to videotape the wreckage under 6,000 feet of Irish Sea and will be used to recover parts of the aircraft. Sources say there is particular interest in the forward section of the airplane. "We want to see it up close," one source said.
Those two disasters killed 849 people, more than half the international death toll this year. When jumbo jets were first proposed, the possibility of such an enormous single-event loss of life caused great concern in the U.S. aviation establishment. But Boeing pushed ahead and won FAA certification for its 747, which has an impressive safety record.
Nonetheless, it is because of the size of that plane and its prevalence on long-haul, overwater flights that so much time and money are going into the Air India investigation. The day of the Japan Air Lines crash, Air India investigators rechecked what they knew about their plane's tail section. The vertical tail fin -- the one that came off in Japan -- is in one piece on the ocean floor.
The worst U.S. crash this year was at Dallas-Fort Worth on a Delta Airlines Lockheed L1011, in which 133 died. All of the early indications are that the plane encountered a weather phenomenon called microburst wind shear, which has the capability at low altitude to strike an airplane from the sky. The plane was landing in a small thunderstorm that may have looked benign from both the cockpit and the air traffic control tower.
That crash pointed again to the inadequacy of wind-shear detection systems at U.S. airports and gave impetus to the FAA's research and development program to get wind-shear detecting radar out of the development stage and onto the airports, a process that will take at least four or five years.
Despite pressure to trim the budget, the FAA and its parent Transportation Department say there has been no delay to research and development because of funding and no delay on radar procurement.
Two accidents -- one on a British Airtours flight in Manchester, England, and the other in Milwaukee -- involve Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, although the problems were different.
About once every 10,000 U.S. flights, a pilot has to shut down an engine, an automatic emergency that requires pilots to land at the nearest airport. That means that more than once a day in U.S. commercial aviation, an airplane makes a landing with less than its full complement of engines. "That's a phenomenally small number, unless you're the one in that airplane," Engen noted.
In Manchester, a canister-like combustion chamber appears to have broken loose from the engine on the Boeing 737 and started a fire in the left-wing fuel tank as the airplane rolled toward takeoff. The pilot braked to a halt, but 54 of the 137 on board were unable to escape.
FAA officials are known to be concerned that the under-wing engine configuration of the Boeing 737 may present a different engine shielding requirement than for aircraft such as McDonnell Douglas DC9s and Boeing 727s, where the engines are in the rear, away from the fuel tanks.
In Milwaukee, investigators have established that the right engine failed shortly after the Midwest Express DC9 became airborne. However, it appears there was no penetration of the plane's fuselage by flying engine parts and no obvious mechanical reason the plane could not be flown.
Pilot reaction to the emergency is getting heavy attention in the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation. Pilot performance is also an issue in the Delta crash in Dallas, the Galaxy Airlines crash at Reno in January that killed 70 people, and the Eastern crash near La Paz, Bolivia, about which little is known because the airplane is buried in snow at 19,000 feet.
No one interviewed thinks that airline deregulation can be blamed directly for the sudden increase in accidents. The six safest years in history were under deregulation, which Congress legislated in 1978.
But one question deregulation raises is whether the safety standards of smaller airlines are equal to those of larger ones.
Investigators are privately impressed with the apparent high quality of the Midwest operation, despite the relatively low number of flight hours -- 11,000 hours combined -- for the pilot and copilot in the Milwaukee crash. But when a United Airlines pilot finally makes captain after 18 or so years in a United uniform, he has at least 11,000 hours with United alone.
Because of deregulation, the number of passenger-carrying airlines almost doubled while the FAA was asked in the early years of the Reagan administration to reduce its number of safety inspectors.
That decision was reversed after a series of nonfatal but scary incidents in 1983, and the FAA now has about as many inspectors -- 650 or so -- as in 1980. It seems clear that more inspectors will be hired with both the administration and Congress pushing for an increase.
"I think there is a generic linkage between the number of inspectors and the probability of something happening," said Mineta. " . . . I think both the FAA and Congress have to become the safety advocates to prevent a crisis in confidence in the public about boarding aircraft. The standard of safety ought to be there regardless of the type or size of carrier."
Engen agrees. "We cannot afford to let irresponsible people operate out there," he said. "We will be strong in enforcing."