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Century after first fatality, safety is in the air

It was called an "aeroplane," but the contraption Orville Wright piloted on Sept. 17, 1908 was hardly more than a big box kite with a motor. And unlike his famous first flight in 1903, this one was doomed.
Image: Troops rush to the site of a crashed plane
Troops of the U.S. Army Signal Corps rush to the site of a crashed plane to recover the pilot Orville Wright and his passenger, army observer Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, from the wreckage September 17, 1908, in Fort Myer, Va. AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was called an "aeroplane," but the contraption Orville Wright piloted on Sept. 17, 1908 was hardly more than a big box kite with a motor. And unlike his famous first flight in 1903, this one was doomed.

Less than five minutes after takeoff, Wright's plane lay smashed, his passenger mortally injured, and the world got an early taste of the perils of flying. It was the first fatal airplane crash in history, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.

"The aeroplane is still far within the experimental stage," a New York Times writer lamented three days later. "The perfected machine will doubtless be different from it in everything from principle to motive power."

A hundred years later modern jets have indeed made air travel the safest way to get around. Yet, to the consternation of the airline industry, flying still generates for many the same rush of anxiety that onlookers must have felt when Wright's plane dove into the parade ground at Ft. Myer, Va.

"There's still this mystique about flying," said Ron Nielsen, a retired US Airways pilot who's found a second career counseling people who are afraid to fly. "There's a fear of being closed in, and there's a fear of dying."

It doesn't help when airlines are caught failing to follow government safety regulations, as was the case with American Airlines and Southwest Airlines earlier this year.

Anxiety levels may also rise when members of Congress accuse the Federal Aviation Administration of an inappropriately cozy relationship with the airlines it regulates. In response to reports of lapses in FAA oversight, the House passed a law in July that would force federal aviation inspectors to wait two years before taking airline jobs.

But the facts remain: In the U.S., no one has died in a commercial jet crash in two years. Before that, the safety record for airlines has been close to perfect.

According to a 10-year average of National Safety Council statistics from 1996 to 2005, only two people died in commercial airline crashes per 10 billion miles traveled.

That compares to a death rate of five people per 10 billion miles on passenger trains. And in cars, 81 people died for every 10 billion miles traveled.

Accidents in the air have become so rare that investigators no longer find common reasons why commercial airplanes crash, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.

"If you try to say, what's the next common cause (of airline accidents) that we can address, the answer is there isn't one," Dorr said.

It took a lot of work to get to this point.

Aviation has always been an intensively reactive field, with many of its safety enhancements kick-started following major aircraft accidents.

It was this way even in 1908. A few days after the first fatal crash, Wright woke from his hospital bed and asked to see his mechanic.

"I'd like to have his view on just what happened to cause our spill," he said.

The plane was circling about 100 feet above the parade grounds during a demonstration flight for the U.S. Army Signal Corps when it suddenly dropped nose first and crashed. Wright's passenger for the experimental trip, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed.

From the hospital, Wright picked through the scattered remnants of his plane and eventually decided what caused it to drop.

"Mr. Wright finds the accident to the aeroplane was due to the blade of the propeller coming in contact with one of the wires of the machine," C.S. Taylor, Wright's associate, told news reporters. A report by the Signal Corps Aeronautical Board said the propeller blade looked like it struck a wire supporting the rudder.

Aircraft safety investigations have become formalized in the years that followed. The National Transportation Safety Board, founded in 1967, deploys teams of investigators to major accidents and spends months examining each crash. It eventually recommends ways for the airline industry to keep the accident from happening again.

For example, airports were equipped with better weather tracking equipment and wind-shear alert systems following a number of crashes, including one in 1985 when a Delta Air Lines L-1011 tried to land during a thunderstorm at Dallas/Fort Worth airport, killing 135 people.

More safety improvements have followed other major accidents.

It can take months or even years before investigators come up with recommendations from a crash. But "if something happens during the investigation that really strikes fear in someone's heart, we'll send out urgent recommendations," said Bridget Ann Serchak, an NTSB spokeswoman.

Airlines also deal with several hundred new FAA air-worthiness directives each year that are recommended by aircraft manufacturers and other authorities. The FAA occasionally conducts safety audits like one that forced American to cancel hundreds of MD-80 flights this spring and submit to inspections related to electrical wiring.

Sometimes airlines will install safety features on their own. Alaska Air Group Inc., for example, recently said it will equip its entire fleet with a runway-awareness system aimed at preventing collisions on the ground.

"We realized we're flying out of some of the busiest airports in the U.S. and we saw the value of an additional safety measure," said Caroline Boren, spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines.

The systems will cost about $20,000 per aircraft to install, and Alaska's entire fleet is expected to be fully equipped with the alert software by the end of the month.

The FAA and airlines have not always worked well together, Dorr said, but increasingly they are sharing information about safety and maintenance.

That means that in the future, aircraft safety will become more automated with inspectors and airline crews contributing to the FAA's Air Transportation Oversight System, Dorr said. The system brings together maintenance and safety reports, and looks for any safety issues on the horizon.

The fear of flying may never leave some travelers, but as the industry continues to tweak its safety net, more of them may realize many fears are only in their heads.

"Everyone that I know that flies, when they get on the airplane, they're worrying about 'Will I get there on time?' Not, 'is the plane going to crash,'" Dorr said.