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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Hearing the Last of Lost Lives

The U.S. is allowing the families of Flight 93's victims to hear cockpit voice tapes. Investigators who harden themselves to bitter reality will share their inner sanctum.

April 18, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Until today, the U.S. government had never played the cockpit tapes of an air disaster for families who lost loved ones, insisting that the sounds would be too raw.

Now, families of the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 will hear the 30 minutes of tension and chaos that preceded the crash of the jetliner into a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11. They felt they had a right to listen, to know. Their relatives apparently tried to take back control of the plane from four hijackers, and thereby thwarted another terrorist attack.

As they listen, the families will enter a zone normally inhabited only by a small corps of investigators hardened to bitter reality. Like coroners with headphones, the investigators seek to uncover the hidden causes of tragedies through painstaking analysis of the most minute clues.

They work from a National Transportation Safety Board laboratory in Washington that is stacked with mangled recorders, reminders of life's fragility. The listening room itself is spartan. There is a table and chairs, with headphones at each seat. At the end of the table sits a large computer monitor, so everyone can see as an NTSB technician transcribes what is heard on the tape.

Investigators regard this room as the agency's inner sanctum, a workplace in which they witness struggles that reveal both the harsh finality of death and the power of the human will to live.

"You are really very close to the soul," said Malcolm Brenner, an NTSB psychologist who specializes in voice analysis. "Speech is very close to how a person thinks."

Brenner believes he has gotten to know some pilots as one would a friend by repeatedly listening to snatches of the last half-hour of their lives to figure out how they died.

He listened hundreds of times over four years to the cockpit tapes of USAir Flight 427, which went down near Pittsburgh in 1994, killing all 132 aboard.

Finally, he was able to match a series of grunting sounds by the co-pilot with data replicating a malfunction of the Boeing 737's rudder. The co-pilot was grunting as he fought to overcome an unexpected, catastrophic turn in what would otherwise have been a routine landing. Brenner's work helped bring about a redesign of the rudder system on the airliner, the world's most popular.

When the Federal Aviation Administration first required voice recorders in the mid-1960s, investigators could do little more than try to make out the conversation. Now some tapes are studio quality, Brenner said.

Computer analysis allows measurement of the level of stress in a pilot's voice. Specific scientific criteria have been developed to identify panic in a human voice. The panic response has never been heard with pilots undergoing training in a simulator, Brenner said, only in an actual crash.

Investigators correlate the words and exclamations of pilots with information on controls and flight conditions from the plane's second "black box," the flight data recorder. Clicks, thumps, vibrations and other mechanical noises can also be of significance, and the NTSB maintains a sound library to help identify them. Both recorders were recovered from the Flight 93 crash.

The cockpit tapes often reveal the best of people under the worst of circumstances, investigators say.

The cockpit recorder of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 showed that the pilots kept struggling to regain control of the plane even after its horizontal stabilizer broke away. It plunged upside-down into the Pacific Ocean off Ventura County on Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 88 aboard.

In the heroism of Flight 93's passengers, veteran investigators see the same kind of resolve.

"You have a problem and you try to solve it without any foreknowledge of how much time you have to live," said Douglas Wiegmann, a professor of aviation human factors at the University of Illinois and a former NTSB psychologist. "I believe these passengers thought they could take control and land the plane. They weren't trying to find another way to die; they were trying to save the situation."

"The passengers who took action were of the same mind-set as the people who fly airplanes," agreed Paul McCarthy, an airline captain who represents the pilots' union in investigations. That mind-set? "Pilots are survivors," he said.

Even so, there comes a moment of dread on cockpit tapes. An exclamation, an invocation, a lament, a curse. Then voices cease and an awful silence reigns.

"The most chilling part is when it ends," said David F. Thomas, a former chief investigator for the FAA. "All of a sudden there's silence, and you know it's over."

The families of Flight 93 have been told what to expect. "The content is violent and very distressing," said an FBI memo to the families. "Once the [recording] is heard, it may be impossible to forget the sounds and images it evokes."

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