Blog

September 23, 2014

A New Perspective on Aviation Safety, Post-9/11

More articles by »
By: Phil Derner Jr.
Tags: , , ,
Retrieval of American Airlines 587's tail section.
Retrieval of American Airlines 587's tail section.
In 2001, I was in college, working part-time at a Home Depot in College Point, Queens. Here and there I’d be asked by my manager to go to another store to lend a hand with various projects, and that November saw me working at their Long Island City store.

It was morning on the 12th when word traveled by mouth (pre-Twitter) that a plane had crashed in Rockaway after departing JFK. Once just a few details and the first images on TV showed how grim it was — a massive field of fire appearing as though the aircraft had dived out of the sky– I knew that a few hundred people had just perished.

This was different than other plane crashes, though. It was frightening on a different level. It was just over two months after the September 11th attacks, and New Yorkers were just starting to creep out of the initial shock of that horrible day. For me, one of the most vivid examples of our reactions to 9/11 were the subway rides, which were dead silent. Sitting on long bench seats, riders faced each other, looking around, still thinking “what just happened?” as if the airplanes had hit those towers minutes ago. Our faces were filled with grief, and even surprise, wanting to both seek out and also offer help, almost wishing for the whole train car to break out into one sobbing group hug.

The initial word of American 587’s demise brought another smack of shock, with everyone’s first question being “Was this crash another attack? Are they shooting down airliners now?”

Phil Derner in "Homer D. Poe" mascot costume in 2001.

Phil Derner in “Homer D. Poe” mascot costume in 2001.

I walked outside the store in my orange apron and into the parking lot. I looked at the portion of the NYC skyline that was visible from my vantage point, which included the Empire State Building. I had two series of thoughts going. First was survival mode, thinking about what life was going to be like with regular attempts at terror in daily life. I thought about my family, if I should leave work to go protect them against…who knows what. It was partially a moment set to a Rocky theme, where it was time to get serious, hunker down and get ready to kick ass and take names.

My other train of thought included that stare at the Empire State Building. I remembered back to my fresh thoughts of 9/11, and what it was like for my eyes to see what I saw from miles away, to smell the smoke, to shortly thereafter walk around ground zero’s rubble, knowing the names of people who had perished that were still buried and missing underneath me. I thought about the accidental crash into the Empire State Building in 1945. I wondered if the ESB would come under attack itself at any point, and if the impending war on terror would totally alter our skyline forever as the years progressed.

So many things ran through my mind, and I admit to finding some relief when it was confirmed shortly thereafter that American 587 had not been an attack. But then came more thoughts, more ideas.

I had always loved aviation, but I didn’t know about planespotting until shortly after high school. Though I was hooked on the hobby once I learned of it, 9/11 did something else to me and my passion. I decided that I refused to be scared of airplanes and air travel. I refused to surrender to media sensationalism, and to the instinct of the changed world that was upon us since those 4 airliners were used as weapons.

This may not be a shock to you, but I was never an academic, and never excelled in schools. But I learned what I wanted, and from that point forward instead of self-teaching world history, philosophy and politics, I read and read and read about aviation. I read about airplanes, airports, studying plane crash reports and whatever I could get my hands on. I tried to watch the industry from all angles and absorb everything I could. I’d read books, print out single-page articles or 40-page lecture transcripts, writing notes in the margins consisting of more questions that I wanted to research later.

Why did I do this? Because I wanted to be armed with knowledge. I saw the threat of fear as a disease in this industry, and I wanted to pass that knowledge along to others, maybe even creating within some of them a passion for aviation at the same time. How would I do this? I had no idea. It was still two years before NYCAviation was born and I hadn’t formulated a plan on that yet.

We always hear the phrase “Never Forget” in reference to 9/11 and other disasters or tragedies. Plane crashes are no different, whether terrorism or not. Every single crash has lessons learned and some sort of subsequent reform to hopefully prevent another accident from happening again for the same reason. This is why flying is the safest it has ever been, and continues to improve. It is part of the reason why aviation is so fascinating and should be celebrated as one of the the most amazing feats of our species’ existence.

USAir Flight 405 crashed at LGA in 1992, offering many lessons learned, which we will be discussing at length.

USAir Flight 405 crashed at LGA in 1992, offering many lessons learned, which we will be discussing at length.

Moreover, the “never forget” idea for aircraft accidents doesn’t only apply to industry employees and how they operate in their craft, but also to the flying public. The lessons are vital in knowing the realities of aircraft safety, and why we often have to jump through hoops or deal with little annoyances when we take to the skies, as there is often a safety related reason for it. Weighing your bags, going through airport security, putting on your oxygen mask first before helping others, ashtrays still existing in new aircraft bathrooms, staying seated until you are at the gate, and a ton of other details of your flying experiences all come from lessons learned, having previous aviation accidents tied to them.

Over the coming months, NYCAviation will be discussing some aviation accidents in detail. The same way we seek to educate you on airline safety will be the same way that we deliver to you the realities and repercussions of events that lead to tragedy in what is the safest form of transportation. These articles may have some details that are tough to read, but it is all for the sake of educating people on the men and woman that work to help keep you safe. Learning the details of accidents such as Air Florida 90, USAir 405 and UPS 6 are just a few that we will discuss. Each are filled with mistakes in some form, as well as horror, and heartache. Equally, they show human spirit, courage and offer lessons that make me confident and proud of aviation safety every time I take to the sky.

Knowing and learning the realities is the only true way to never forget.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.