Things that could go wrong: What if it was maintenance?

in StemSocial6 months ago

Emery worldwide 17 flight took off in a DC8 cargo plane at Dayton airport and was scheduled to land at Reno. Unfortunately, disaster struck on the 16th of February 2000, and the aeroplane barely made it out of the runway before crashing into a car scrap yard some miles away from the airport.

The crash led to the untimely death of the three crew members on board; Captain Kevin Stables (43) who had logged 13,329 flight hours and 2,128 hours in type; First Officer George Land (35) who had logged 4,511 flight hours and 2,080 in type; and Flight Engineer Russell Hicks (38) who had logged 9,775 flight hours and 675 in type

Understanding what happened that day will require getting to grips with the different phases of flight and how critical they are to a successful flight.

There are three distinct phases of flight, Although they could be further split into components, the main phases are Take-off, Cruise and then Landing. Take-off and landing are exact opposites of each other while the cruise is when maximum altitude is achieved.

Research has proven that the two most sensitive phases of flight are take-off and landing. Depending on the aircraft, take-off is said to be completed when an aircraft clears a vertical distance of 50 feet for commercial aircraft and about 35 feet for military aircraft.

For an aircraft to be deemed to have completed a takeoff, it needs to clear this vertical distance without any problems. In the event of any problems, the runway is made a bit longer than required to cater for aborted takeoffs due to problems.

However, some problems can be detected immediately while on the runway and those ones are easily aborted. However, in cases like the Emery flight 17 where a subtle and undetectable problem causes the accident, you could find yourself picking up debris from a crash.

In this emotional case, both pilots and the engineer were all friends with the investigator. Naturally, investigators have to be professional, despite their affiliation with the bereaved. However, this case held special meaning to the team handling the case.

Loaded up

After being cleared to take off, the pilots and the flight engineer began making necessary preparations. Everything seemed normal that evening, with takeoff going as scheduled.

However, freshly after takeoff, the FC8 cargo plane suddenly spun out of control and crashed into a junkyard a few miles away from the airport. Investigators found that the pilots struggled to gain control of the flight to no success.

Reports from the investigation of the flight data and voice recorder showed that the pilots did everything possible to return the out of control plane to the airport. Sadly, it wasn't their day and the only question on our mind was what went wrong?

The Center of gravity

The first suspicion was that there was a problem with the way the Cargo was loaded in the plane. That was quickly debunked by the ground staff who vehemently assured investigators that it wasn't the case.

Regardless, an investigation was carried out on the centre of gravity of the plane to confirm their claim. The centre of gravity of an object or aircraft is an imaginary point where the weight of a body is said to be concentrated.

In aviation, the centre of gravity moves around the aircraft due to the need for a dynamic balance. In most cases, the centre of gravity is kept at a central position to ensure the aircraft is balanced.

In this case, there was actually no centre of gravity issue because everything was placed properly in the cargo haul. However, the problem was still from a part of the aircraft and is something that could have been avoided.

The Elevator

Maintenance practices in aviation require skilled hands that pay close attention to details. It is possible to get away with improper maintenance practices in Aviation but the fact remains that any deviation from normal flight behaviour could prove to be catastrophic.

In the aircraft, there's a component called the elevators. The wing typically generates all the lift required for liftoff but the flight is only possible through a combination with the elevators.

The elevators are structural components typically found at the tail section of an aircraft. The main purpose of the flight control surface is to redirect the airflow around the tail section. The rerouting of air leads to the nose up or nose-down movement in aircraft.

In simple terms, when nose up, we're taking off and when nose down, we're landing. There are two elevators; one on each side of the tail section. They don't always move in the same direction. Their interaction also leads to other types of motion, particularly during cruise.

Here's the thing though, in takeoff and landing, both elevators are usually in an identical position. Any deviation from this could lead to the aircraft performing an unwanted bank or roll.

In this unfortunate incident, it was detected that the elevator on the right side of the wing was unresponsive. This unresponsiveness was due to the absence of a single missing bolt and nut.

The absence of this single bolt and nut led to the right elevator being jammed in the nose up condition when the pilots were trying to land the aircraft. At cruise altitude, this would typically translate to the aircraft rolling, assuming the other elevator was at nose down configuration.

Investigators concluded that the missing bolt and nut was due to negligence during maintenance of the aircraft. This "simple case of complacency" led to the loss of lives and millions of dollars worth of goods.

Maintenance practices by airlines came under the radar after this incident. The investigators found out that there was a high level of unprofessionalism in the way maintenance was carried out in Tenessee back then.

The investigators also discovered that maintenance managers didn't cross-check the activities of the mechanics doing their jobs. In a typical setup, every maintenance activity carried out often has a manager perform a checklist test to ascertain the work done. In the case of this particular aircraft, there was no checklist test carried out.

Assuming the checklist was done properly, this would have never happened, said the investigator. Sadly, the worst case happened and all that was left was a world of pain and regret over the accident.

This event highlights how sensitive everybody's role is in aviation and how even the minutest of details could turn into a disaster, if not handled properly.


On the backdrop of this event, the FAA created guidelines that ensured every maintenance procedure used for every plane is clearly documented. This would ensure that no screws or nuts are left loose and nothing is left to chance.

Finally, the airline got grounded after this event, but that was not before numerous lawsuits came flying in. It was discovered that there had been many years of improper management of maintenance but in the end, all it took was some bolt and nuts to put a stop to it. Sadly, lives were lost in this life lesson.