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NH expert: Human factor likely doomed Malaysian Flight 370

Union Leader Correspondent

March 17. 2014 10:59PM
A jet engine lies crumpled in the underbrush in Dorchester, N.H., after the November 1999 discovery of the Learjet that had disappeared in December 1996. (UNION LEADER FILE)

BRIDGEWATER — Bob Martens reviewed hundreds of accidents as a Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector and did a study of why a Learjet crashed into a Dorchester mountain in 1996. And he suspects that as in the Learjet case, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will ultimately be traced back to the actions of human beings, not mechanical failure.

Carrying more than 200 passengers, Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur on March 8 bound for Beijing; it has not been heard from since. (Story, Page A4.)Martens, who has more than 7,600 hours of flight experience, is following the situation closely.

Martens' aviation career began in 1970 when he joined the U.S. Air Force, eventually piloting Hercules HC-130s in a rescue-and-recovery squadron in Florida and Okinawa.

He joined the Air Force Reserve in 1977 and flew a variety of transports, including the C-5 Galaxy, out of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass. He retired as a colonel in 2001.

In his civilian life, which overlapped with his time in the Air Force Reserve, Martens from 1986 to 2006 was the aviation safety inspector at the FAA office in Windsor Locks, Conn.

Currently, Martens is an aviation safety consultant who uses the lessons learned from the Dorchester crash to prevent such incidents in the future.

The human factor

Martens said in his case study of the Dorchester crash, which he has presented numerous times, it became immediately clear that the pilots — who left Bridgeport Municipal Airport in Stratford, Conn., on Christmas Eve 1996 to fly to Lebanon, where they were supposed to pick up passengers bound for Northampton, N.Y. — were responsible for the crash of their plane.

Despite intense search efforts, it took nearly three years to find the Learjet.

A forester, who had been in the same area just a day earlier, found debris from the crash.

Martens subsequently obtained the transcript of the plane's cockpit voice recorder as well as the radar track of the Learjet's flight from Connecticut to within 20 miles of Lebanon Municipal Airport. The jet disappeared after making a missed approach to the Lebanon airport.

With those two sources of data, "we knew exactly where they had been," said Martens. "The only thing we didn't know was why they had done it. And my presentation said human factors, human frailties, were responsible and saw these guys fly a perfectly good airplane into the side of a mountain and be clueless."

The pilots "didn't wake up that day and say 'We're going to kill ourselves,'" said Martens, but they were "just oblivious they were heading down this awful road."

Little left intact

When the Learjet was found, very little of it was intact. "When a projectile at 200 miles per hour impacts a mountain, it obliterates it," Martens said. "It pulverizes it."

Even with a jet as large as the Malaysia Boeing 777, if it crashed into something solid like a mountain, or into water at a steep angle, "You're going to compact that whole plane down and not have a lot left," Martens said.

"There are some parallels," he said, between the Learjet crash and the missing Malaysia Airlines plane because of the similarity of terrain and because neither plane was tracked by approach-control radar, which would have followed them below 5,000 feet.

Over the ocean, aircraft are not tracked as blips on a radar screen, Martens said. "You're in a very remote section of the world and you (the pilot) give position reports on a frequency and someone plots where these planes are between reporting points.

"That's why there's so much mystery here. The system depends on them calling in where they are because it's a very inexact science over the water and it's literally dependent upon voice transmission of where the planes are."

Pilot error

Every plane crash is a sequence of events, Martens said. Research into crashes has repeatedly found that the pilots, not the craft, were at fault.

"Quite frankly, there's a lot higher chance of human culpability," he said. "Ninety percent plus of accidents are due to human rather than mechanical factors and that keeps going up all the time.

In the Malaysia Airlines case, "Now they're looking at the human element and that's probably going to bear out," said Martens.

"Everything in aviation, year in and year out, has been getting safer and human beings remain the weak element in the system," he said.

In the U.S., aviation-safety officials have focused on that human factor for almost 40 years, he said, and as a result, "in the U.S. we have virtually eliminated aircraft accidents at the commercial level and that's tremendous testimony to the system."

Martens said the Malaysian government doesn't have the resources or training, and he has little confidence in its ability to do a proper investigation.

"The take-away for me is that the cry should be for credible information," he said, "and the information being reported, in my opinion, is marginally credible."

Martens doesn't think Flight 370 will be found with its passengers and crew unharmed.

"After ten days, you're not going to keep a perfectly intact aircraft with people onboard secret. With each passing second, that becomes less of a possibility. The good news is the millions and millions of people who travel safely every day."

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