Forty years ago today Boeing was at the center of another mystery. It was on this day April 4, 1979, that a Boeing 727 unexpectedly rolled over while in cruise and plummeted nearly 39,000 feet before the crew was able to pull out of the dive. What happened? Did the crew do something to cause the dive, or was there a problem with the plane?
The consequences for Boeing were grave. If investigators could not find an answer, there was the very real possibility that they might have to ground the entire Boeing 727 fleet, which, at over 1,400 aircraft, was the most popular aircraft in the world. The consequences of that action would have been devastating to not only Boeing but the entire global airline industry.
One month into the investigation into TWA 841 there was a tragic accident involving a DC-10 at Chicago Ohare. It was one of a string of accidents involving the DC-10. The FAA grounded the aircraft a month later. The pressure was mounting on Boeing to solve the TWA 841 mystery.
The NTSB and the FAA looked to Boeing for answers. It was their plane. They had the expertise and resources to conduct tests and help determine the cause of the near-fatal dive. But Boeing also had an incentive to shift the focus away from the plane. A theory soon emerged that the crew was somehow involved in causing the incident through improper manipulation of the flight controls. The theory was bolstered by the discovery that the cockpit voice recorder had only nine minutes of audio on the thirty-minute tape, indicating an erasure.
All efforts from that point on focused on the crew and away from the aircraft. After a two year investigation, the crew was ultimately blamed for the upset. That, however, was not the end of the story. A new investigation was mounted seven years later that pointed to a different probable cause, one that found fault with the aircraft. You can read more about that story in the book Scapegoat: A Flight Crew’s Journey From Heroes to Villians to Redemption.
As Boeing now finds itself embroiled in another controversy involving one of its planes, let’s not forget the lessons of the past. Human error is a factor in most aircraft accidents, but that doesn’t always mean the flight crew. Mistakes can happen anywhere, anytime, even by an aircraft manufacturer.