Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mysteries and the Not So Mysterious

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the possibility of the D.B. Cooper mystery being solved. A few days after that, the verdict was in-- the parachute that was found was definitely not one of the parachutes that the authorities gave to "Cooper" during the hijacking. The parachute that the kids found was a World War II vintage silk parachute. The parachutes that were given to Cooper were nylon chutes that were relatively new at the time (1971).

The other night, though, I was thinking: where the hell, then, did the silk parachute come from? It occurred to me that the purpose of the chutes may not have been for his use. His hijacking was meticulously planned. I have trouble believing that he'd have counted on getting the parachutes after the hijacking started. My thought was, then, that the chutes he asked for were red herrings-- that he carried a chute-- which he purchased from an Army Surplus store-- with him onto the flight (remember that in these days, there was virtually no inspection of carry-on luggage-- it was his hijacking that changed that).

Whatever the case may be, the mystery of D.B. Cooper. like The Dude, abides.

Another mystery, however, is coming to light: why the Titanic sank. That is, other than the Captain being pressured to go too fast and run the Titanic through a dangerous icefield quickly.

Scientists are testing rivets taken up from the Titanic wreck and discovering that first, the rivets used were not of the highest quality.


The rivets contained large amounts of slag, which made them much more brittle, particularly as they got colder. Given that the Titanic was going to spend her whole working life in the frigid North Atlantic, that is something the company might have wanted to consider.

If there had been less damage, the ship may have lasted longer; the assumption was that even if she'd been mortally damaged, she would survive long enough for help to get there. Indeeed, if she'd stayed partly afloat for less than two hours more, virtually every passenger and crew member would have been saved.

The reason for the use of the inferior metal, it appears, is that there was a shortage of the top quality metal (as well as riveters). The company was trying to complete three huge ships at one time. And there were some money issues. Surprise, surprise.

There is a long and rich history of companies cutting corners to save money. A couple I have personal connections with.

On May 25, 1979, I was a senior at Lyons Township High School, getting ready to graduate in less than two weeks. I was riding my bike home from school when I noticed a lot of smoke to the north. When I got home, I turned on the television to see what was going on and discovered that a plane had crashed at O'Hare Airport-- American Airlines Flight 191.

It turned out, as investigations showed, that mechanics had been taking a shortcut during routine engine maintainence. Rather than taking the engine off first, then the pylon that it was attached to the wing with, they were detaching the whole thing at once. Over time it cracked the rods that held the pylon to the wing. As Flight 191 went up, the cracked pins snapped and the engine came completely off, pulling out vital hydraulic lines with it. The pilot was unable to regain control and the airplane slammed into the ground, as the horrifying picture that someone in O'Hare snapped showed.

My father was an instructor at IBM back then. One of the other instructors in his group had, that day, had a group that he kept past the normal class time. Because of it, they missed their flight back to Los Angeles. They were supposed to be on Flight 191.

Around that time, my family had two cars. One of them was a 1973 Ford Pinto. In the late seventies, there was a recall for the Pintos. It seemed that if they were struck from behind, the tube leading from the gas tank to the fill-up spout would tear loose and pour gasoline on the pavement.

As this happened, the leaf springs would tear loose at the end toward the end of the car and strike the pavement like a flint, often igniting the gasoline. This was responsible for a number of accidents, including a horrific accident in Indiana in which three teenaged girls were killed and one left horribly burned. This resulted in a personal injury award that set a record the time.

One day, my father asked me to take the Pinto to a nearby mechanic to get an estimate on the "fix" that Ford was paying for. The mechanic showed me a Pinto in the back that had suffered a year-end collision, and why the accidents were so bad, and demonstrated just what the fix would entail-- a piece of plastic under the gas tank that would allow the gas to pour a few inches further back.

Very reassuring. From then on, I kept my eye on the rear view mirror whenever I was at a stoplight.

Later, when I was talking about it to my father, I was thinking of another recall-- around the same time, the Firestone company was recalling their Firestone 500 radials, which would overheat and fly apart at certain speeds. I joked with him-- wouldn't it have been ironic if our Pinto had come equipped with Firestone 500 radials?

It had, he told me. The tires ahd been replaced a couple of years before, when the treads wore out.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.


vikkitikkitavi said...

Something I learned in while working in various costume shops during school is that old army parachutes are an excellent source for cheap silk. I also learned that the army used their old chutes to wrap around things that they buried in the ground, because silk does not rot.

Presumeably, many army veterans would have picked up this trick as well.

I dunno, something to think about.

Mnmom said...

MMMmmmmm food for thought.

Regarding major catastrophes and death from money-saving ventures - the very recent Mpls bridge collapse.

'Bubbles' said...

I remember hearing (Frontline, maybe?) that the engineers that designed the WTC discussed the idea of designing for a plane hit, but they did not include that factor in their designs.

The constraints of time, money, resources, etc. are a reality. It comes down to morals, values, and statistics, I suppose.

Sadly, most business people think morals and values is just fluffy stuff, so statistics win. In the WTC case I believe it was statistics that drove the decision, and who would have believed that someone would do it on purpose?

I'm also reminded of the space shuttle disaster. O-rings. Freaking O-rings. The engineer that spoke out about that at Morton Thiocol was shunned by his peers. It wouldn't feel so good to end up being right, would it? It is now a classic case study for the "Group Think" phenomenon.

Bubs said...

Speaking of the Chicago DC10 crash, the trailer park on the north side of Touhy Avenue has been rumored to be haunted ever since. Stuff like people hearing knocking on their doors with no one there, people walking up to ask to use the phone to make a call and then disappearing, stuff like that.

Cheer34 said...

I like your theory on DB Cooper......Bubbles is correct, I think, decision makers would rather have a project finished on time, then pay money for the extra time to fix a problem....I beleive they play the odds regarding the potentail of a disaster happening and would rather pay with human lives at a later time then with cash sooner. Keeping your fingers crossed and hoping the odds are in their favor is the standard for some business people.

SamuraiFrog said...

I recently saw a movie about the Titanic that was made in Germany while the Nazis were in power. In the film, the allege that the White Star Line purposely made the Titanic a shoddy piece of equipment while touting its magnificence in order to drive up the stock and then sell it at artificially inflated prices, only to sink the ship and collect insurance. This was apparently something people took seriously as an idea. In the corporate world, anything sounds plausible.

I remember that someone said the only thing the rear bumper on the Ford Pinto was good for was reflecting the sun.

SkylersDad said...

One of the side effects that occurred from flight 191 was that it killed the DC-10. What was a very good plane, but as you point out, wasn't maintained very well, took all of the blame for human error.

Johnny Yen said...

I didn't know that about silk.

It was assumed that "Cooper" was a military veteran from some of the things that he said during the hijacking-- maybe even a paratrooper.

Absolutely. I drove my car, with my whole family, over that bridge just a few months before, when I visited my in-laws. Scary.

They actually did factor it in. I saw a thing about it on television. In 1945, the Empire State Building was hit by a B-25 bomber that was lost in the fog, so they knew it was a possibility. They factored in the possibility of a hit by a 707, the biggest plane when construction started (the 747 was released in 1969, while construction was going on). They didn't anticipate that the planes would be much bigger, loaded with fuel and going nearly full speed.

In the program, the chief designer agonized over decisions made. The design they used, with all the support on the outside, which had allowed lots of open space inside, contributed partly to the failure, but also was part of why the building stood long enough for most people below where the planes hit to get out. The structure pylons around where the planes went through took up the missing support.

One of the key things that happened was that in the midst of construction, asbestos was banned, so there was only asbestos on the beams up to a certain point-- far below where the planes hit.

In the end, I felt like telling him "Hey-- you designed a building that stood long enough, after getting hit with a couple of hundred tons of metal and fuel going hundreds of miles an hour long enough for thousands of people to get out." His design was good enough to save the lives of all those people. And in the end, as you point out, who the hell would imagine that a bunch of assholes would fly planes full of people into buildings full of people.

The O-rings remind me of another NASA disaster, the fire, during a test on the ground of the Apollo 1 space capsule. The 100% oxygen atmosphere caused what should have been a minor spark to erupt into a flash fire that ignited things that normally wouldn't burn with much intensity, like velcro. Because the hatch opened inward, once the fire started, the astronauts were doomed, as the pressure inside the spacecraft made it impossible for even the strongest man to open the hatch. As astronaut Frank Borman said in the hearings afterward, it was a failure of imagination-- who would have imagined that the first deaths in the space program would happen on the ground during a test?

I've heard that too!

I remember reading that the carnage was horrific-- the plane hit with huge force and fire, and the bodies of the victims were dismembered. A lot of the cops, firefighters and paramedics were Vietnam vets and even they required counseling afterward.

Companies actually do cost analysis and figure in the cost of certain safety measures, which are often pennies (multiplied millions of times in production) and the cost of paying off a couple of lawsuits. It's pretty cold.

The sad thing is that it's plausabile, isn't it?

In the late seventies, Ralph Nader was a host on Saturday Night Live, and one of the things he had was a little model Ford Pinto that was complete in every detail-- it worked as a cigarette lighter.

The history channel had a thing about that crash, the causes and consequences, and they pointed out the same thing-- that it was an excellent aircraft, with a great safety record, as long as you maintained it according to procedures, like any aircraft.

Foreign airlines use them a lot, as does the military-- KC-10 refueling tankers. The mother of one of Adam's school friends is a pilot for Federal Express, and she told him that their entire fleet is DC-10's.

'Bubbles' said...

I stand corrected on the WTC thing. I have this way that I tell stories now that I'm, uh, getting older. I tell my kids, "I saw this on some TV show, or maybe I read it, or maybe I'm just making this up, but.... (fill in completely incorrect and non-factual stuff)."

The sad part is, I'm not full of BS, I'm just unclear on where I heard it and why I think it. Perhaps it is time for me to stop sharing what's in my head... it's all trashed up! :-)

Like I told Kirby the other day, I can't even watch a full hour of Nova anymore without getting a brain cramp. Sigh.

Johnny Yen said...

It happens to the best of us. Increasingly, as I get older, there are things I know that I have no idea where they came from-- I may have read it, heard it, seen it on a tv show, or, like you say, it's a complete figment of my imagination.

Distributorcap said...

i remember that American Airlines accident like it was yesterday, since i was getting on a DC10 a week later.... and they were all grounded (if i remember correctly)..

the recent American Airlines debacle -- of the MD80s is also due to corporate neglect and greed -- not maintaining up to standards --- or is it the FAA didnt adhere to the manufacturer's own standards

the pinto, AA191, the wtc collapse, the bridge in minneapolis -- all inevitably due to not only human error but also human greed