When news broke about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance in March 2014, speculation immediately turned to mechanical failure.
More than a week later, the search for the missing Boeing 777 continued, and aviation experts began to speculate that “human actions,” not mechanical failure, was at the center of the aircraft’s fate.
Whatever caused Flight 370 to disappear somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and its intended destination, the incident raised the profile of a simple fact of aviation: Human life literally hangs in the balance every time an aircraft takes flight—and aircraft mechanics play a critical role in ensuring that passengers arrive safely at their destinations.
What technology tells the world
When an airliner crashes, it usually doesn’t take long for aviation experts to diagnosis what went wrong. Satellites and radar can usually pinpoint an aircraft’s exact location and altitude.
Once the crash site is reached, the craft’s black box, or flight data recorder, provides a plethora of information about the actions of the pilots, airspeed, movement of individual flaps on the wings and fuel levels.
In other words, investigators can determine exactly why an aircraft failed, if it was due to mechanical or maintenance failure, and whether or not it could have been prevented.
Aircraft maintenance fails that could have been prevented
History is riddled with devastating and deadly aircraft crashes that investigators later deemed could have been prevented had proper maintenance procedures been followed.
In April 2009, a Bond Super Puma AS332L Mark II helicopter crashed in the North Sea, killing 14 oil workers as well as two pilots. Just this year, investigators released a report that said the craft’s rotor blades pulled away from the aircraft as it was flying over the seas.
The report blamed the mechanical problems on failed maintenance. Apparently the helicopter’s operator had found a metal chip in the gearbox just weeks before the fatal crash—but had not done anything about it.
There are many other examples of crashes due to failed aircraft maintenance:
- Japan Airlines Flight 123, which took off without a vertical stabilizer in 1985. It crashed 32 minutes after takeoff.
- Chalk’s Flight 101 in December 2005. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board. The cause was traced back to metal fatigue—and a crack in the plane’s wing that was discovered but never properly fixed.
- Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which nose-dived into the Pacific Ocean during a flight from Mexico to Seattle in 2000. Everyone aboard the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 was killed, and investigators later determined the cause to be insufficient lubrication of a jackscrew assembly by airline employees during preventive maintenance.
Surprisingly, ignoring aircraft maintenance wasn’t always an anomaly—it used to be a generally accepted industry practice.
It wasn’t until a huge section of Aloha Airlines Flight 243’s fuselage blew off in 1988 that the National Transportation Safety Board tightened its maintenance requirements. The Boeing 737 was at 24,000 feet and climbing when the plane started ripping apart, sweeping a flight attendant to her death.
Investigators later determined that the plane, which was 19-years-old, had succumbed to corrosion and widespread fatigue. It may have been prevented, investigators said, if strict inspection and maintenance procedures for high-use aircraft had been in place.
Today, aviation experts have learned a lot from past tragedies, and strict standards are placed on the inspection and maintenance of aircrafts. It can’t always prevent tragedy from striking at 34,000 feet, but it can serve as a line of defense in the effort to avert death and keep people safe—and aircraft mechanics are on the front lines.
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