Top Investigator Almost Quit After First Probe

By: By LARRY NEUMEISTER, Associated Press Writer
By: By LARRY NEUMEISTER, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - The chief investigator into last week's safe splash landing of a jetliner in the Hudson River barely spoke above a whisper when recalling his first major plane crash probe, the one that gave him second thoughts about his career choice.

It was November 1987, and 26-year-old Tami Daniel was dying as she waited for hours to be rescued beside her husband, both dangling upside down from their seatbelts in a Continental Airlines jet that had flipped over moments after takeoff in Denver. Daniel finally went limp with her husband's nose pressed against her contorted back.

"I almost quit," recalled Robert Benzon, investigator-in-charge of the US Airways probe for the National Transportation Safety Board. "We had to talk to that husband."

Benzon said Monday the emotions brought on by the Denver crash, which killed 28 of the 82 people aboard, were more powerful than he had faced dealing with the small plane crashes of his first few years.

"It was a little tough to get used to, as you might imagine, but I hung in there and it turns out to be the greatest job in the world," the 59-year-old Benzon said.

He has led roughly 35 major aircraft accident investigations in the United States and represented the agency in an equal number overseas.

His assignments have included probes of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, which killed 270 people, and of American Airlines Flight 587, which killed 260 people on board and five on the ground when it crashed in New York City in 2001.

He also led NTSB staff assisting law enforcement authorities in their study of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings and crashes.

The quiet joy of any aviation investigator is knowing that the greatest successes will be the accidents that never occur.

"The lives you save, the people you save in the future never know you exist because they aren't involved in an accident," Benzon said. "But you're the best friend they ever had."

Benzon, a decorated U.S. Air Force pilot, joined the NTSB in 1984, when plane crashes were more common.

Now, he said, the skies are safer, a fact he attributes to better regulations, solid training and maintenance programs and, when accidents happen, good investigations.

He said most probes result in changes to the industry that target the usual suspect: human error.

"There are good pilots and bad pilots. Sometimes accidents happen because a pilot isn't as good as his peers. It's a fact of life," Benzon said. "The machines aren't perfect but they're getting there."

Though it's too early to reach final conclusions, the probe into the way US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger safely glided his aircraft and its 155 people aboard last week is the most pleasing probe Benzon has led.

"I tell you that gentleman was cool, calm and collected," Benzon said. "That's certainly what we like to see in anybody that's flying an airplane."

Benzon predicted the accident will spawn new interest in technology to protect against birds, including advanced radar already being studied that will track birds better than current radar. A birdstrike is the suspected cause of the latest crash.

Still, he said no one should worry about birds knocking down planes since such accidents are "very, very rare," though the incidence of small birds denting planes are common.

The Fredericksburg, Va., resident also noted there had not been fatalities on a U.S. commercial flight since August 2006.

"That impresses the heck out of me," he said. "And that's our goal - to put ourselves out of business."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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