During the course of the two year investigation into TWA 841, the three cockpit crewmembers never had an opportunity to dispute, in a public forum, the claims being made against them. At a deposition held on January 29, 1980, first officer Scott Kennedy had written a prepared statement that he wanted read into the record before he testified. His request was denied. When Hoot pleaded with his ALPA advisors that he wanted to speak with the investigators to let them know that what they were saying was not true, he was advised to put his comments into an affidavit. It was the only way, they told him, to get an opposing view into the public record. Here is the affidavit Hoot wrote:
I first realized that we had a problem when the control wheel started a slow turn about 10 degrees or more to the left, while the airplane remained relatively straight and level. As this was happening, there was a very gentle shaking or buzz. I had previously experienced a stall and mach buffet on other flights. It was neither of these.
Therein-after something seemed to let go and the airplane yawed and rolled slowly to the right, although the autopilot was still correcting to the left. At the same time the gentle buzz or shaking that I felt at the outset increased to a slight buffet.
Shortly after the aircraft began to roll. I disconnected the autopilot and applied full left aileron at about the same rate as the aircraft was rolling to the right. At about this time, I started coming in with left rudder fairly rapidly because the aircraft rate of roll was increasing. I remember looking back into the cockpit and seeing a bank angle on the HDI of around 40 degrees. I felt at this point that the aircraft was going to continue to roll over and I called out to the copilot. Throughout this sequence of events, I also held a gentle back pressure on the control wheel because the nose was dropping.
There was a clearly defined external horizon throughout the roll of the airplane. A moonlit deck was about 3 to 4 thousand feet below our cruise altitude. This broken-to-solid cloud deck extended several miles ahead of us and beyond the cloud deck I could see the shoreline of Lake Michigan and the glow of lights from cities across the lake.
At the start of the roll, I observed the outside horizontal reference and therefore had a clear indication of the direction of the roll. At no time during the initial phase did I ever suffer spatial disorientation. The aircraft roll was always to the right. (Gibson, H. G. Affidavit November 19, 1979.)
If a similar controversy were to happen today, the crew would have numerous public forums to proclaim their innocence. Unfortunately for the crew of TWA 841, there were no CNN interviews; there were no one hour segments with Charlie Rose. No one in the media wanted to challenge the NTSB.
The crew’s silence was seen by many as proof of guilt. Since Hoot was the captain, he had the most opportunities to voice his frustrations. When a reporter asked Hoot for his immediate reaction to the NTSB findings of probable cause he had this to say, “It was like an out-of-body experience. It was like I was dead or something — the board and staff members argued over things they hadn’t even asked me.” (Laurie McGinley. “Fighting Blame for Near Crash of a Boeing 727, Pilot Raises Questions About Safety of the Plane.” The Wall Street Journal May 3, 1981.)
At a deposition a few months later Hoot was once again asked about the Board’s findings of probable cause. Attorney Harry Sieben read the summary section from the NTSB accident report and then asked Hoot whether or not he agreed or disagreed with the NTSB’s findings.
“It’s like a fairytale.” Hoot responded. “It’s like out of a novel someplace.”
The documentary The Plane That Fell From The Sky was perhaps the first and only time the public had a chance to hear directly from the crew.
In researching this book, I came across an exchange between Hoot and several lawyers that not only made it into the public record but clearly demonstrates Hoot’s state of mind at the time. The incident happened during the deposition of Robert Von Husen. Von Husen was the investigator who had made the determination that the acceleration traces from the October 1981 flight test matched that of TWA 841 with regard to the vibration and deceleration prior to the onset of the upset. His findings, using the questionable analysis technique of magnifying the acceleration traces by a factor of 200, was used to help bolster the NTSB’s conclusions.
TWA attorney Don Mark began the proceedings. Mark started off by asking Von Husen to explain how he had come up with his analysis considering the limited recording parameters of the FDR, the gimble errors, and the tumbled gyros. Von Husen’s response, however, was cut short by NTSB attorney Steven Rolef, who advised his client to not answer. Attorney Rolef continued to object to a multitude of pertinent questions.
Hoot grew frustrated by the constant objections. During a lunch break, Hoot caught up with Von Husen and took him aside. The conversation soon turned heated and Hoot said some things that Von Husen considered as threats. Von Husen told his lawyer about the conversation he had had with Hoot. When the lunch recess was over and the depositions were about to begin, Rolef made a formal request that Hoot be asked to leave.
Don Mark objected to the request, stating that Hoot had a right to be there. That led into an argument that resulted in Hoot’s interaction with Von Husen making its way into the public record. The lawyer for the Wickers, Charles Hvass Jr., interjected himself into the proceedings. He asked Von Husen to state for the record what Hoot had said. Von Husen indicated that the conversation had started off friendly, but that Captain Gibson had asked to speak to him privately. That was when the conversation went in a different direction.
Von Husen: …To the best of my recollection, the conversation eventually evolved to the fact that Captain Gibson told me that he felt that we had not considered the testimony of the crew sufficiently in this investigation and that we had in fact — I am not quite sure of the exact wording, but it was something along the line like hung the crew or hung something on the crew, and that they would pursue us, essentially, as long as we were alive, so to speak. (Deposition of Robert Von Husen April 28, 1982.)
After some discussion about whether Von Husen felt threatened and whether or not he could testify with Hoot present, Charles Hvass turned to Hoot and asked him for his side of the story.
Hvass: …is there anything about this conversation that you recall differently?
Captain Gibson: That is pretty much the way it went. There is just a few very minor differences in that… I think what I said in actuality was that I felt that we — I felt that the NTSB had, what he said, hung us. That is pretty much the same thing. I felt the NTSB had hung us for something we had not done and that it had disregarded the testimony pretty much like he said. And I said since we didn’t do it, I am sure that you would understand that we intend to fight this, you know, I didn’t say until he dies, I said until I die, and I added a little thing. I said I promised I wouldn’t come back from the grave, or something.
Von Husen: You mentioned grave, but I wasn’t quite sure how it was used.
Captain Gibson: I said I was going to pursue this as long as I live, if it took that long, because we have got convicted of doing something we did not do. And I just intended to fight it as long as I lived, if it took that long. I said something about — but I promised I wouldn’t come back from the grave.
Hvass: Were you in any way intending to intimidate this witness?
Captain Gibson: In no way at all.
Hvass: I am ready to go forward. Anybody else?
Mark: I have nothing.
And with that Hoot was permitted to remain for the rest of the testimony. But it was a rare instance where Hoot’s frustration with the investigation into TWA 841 found its way into a formal setting, an opportunity that had not presented itself at any time prior. (Deposition of Robert Von Husen June 22, 1982. P51 -58.)