Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The fall of a Mexican-American Star and her ill-fated aircraft

On December 9, 2012, Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera perished, along with her staff, in an air crash south of Monterrey, Mexico. This crash was sudden and impacted many people in the Latin American community because of her music and tragic circumstances. Because of the sudden and tragic circumstances of this accident, many news sites and individuals in social media were desperate for answers regarding her death. The rumours started swimming around over the aircraft being sabotaged or shot down by cartel leaders in Mexico. Others linked this accident to the politically charged incidents where two Mexican Secretaries of State died in air crashes during the regime of president Felipe Calderon. But two things did catch the attention of the individuals, the pilot and the aircraft’s age.
Many individuals started berating the age of Ms. Rivera’s aircraft. Many wondered why would anyone ride in an aircraft that is four decades old. There are bloggers, which I will not name, that went on a rant on the fact that Jenni's ill-fated aircraft was a 43 year old Learjet. And there are individuals within the aviation community concerned about the age of the aircraft. An article on CNN had an both sides of the story regarding the age of the aircraft. But John McGraw, ex-deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated, ‘However -- on its own -- age is not anindicator of an airplane's safety.’ I remember an adage stating that an aircraft can fly forever as long as you give it proper maintenance. Many Learjets, especially the Learjet 35, have a very long lifespan given by its manufacturer and can fly as long as it is airworthy under FAA standards. Here are some examples of old flyable aircraft:
 Clockwise from the left is a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver. This aircraft was one of the first to fly precious cargo out to the wilderness of Canada and Alaska. Lifelines relied on this aircraft to ferry cargo out to the isolated settlements in these regions. Next is the Antonov 2. This is another rugged aircraft that was used for everything, including, agricultural sprayer, bomber, and special forces transport. This aircraft entered production in 1947 in the USSR and continues to fly today. The last aircraft in these images is a DC-3. This aircraft was one of the first airliners (it was also the C-47, the more famous transport of World War II including inserting the 101st airborne into Northern Europe and flying cargo over the ‘hump’ in the Himalayas) in the world. This aircraft continues to fly today for charter cargo companies and air tours around the world. Here are a few military examples:
From clockwise on the left: the B-52 is one of the primary bombers of the United States Air Force and has served the United States for 57 years. The Tupolev Tu-95 bomber is the Russian counterpart to the B-52 and also survived many of its replacements in its 56 year of service. The problem with older aircraft is that it becomes more expensive to repair due to lack of parts (and rise of prices due to this) and more constant need for repairs. Most of the military aircraft here are old but many of its vital components have been replaced with newer parts. One cannot compare the age decay of an aircraft to that of an automobile.
The same thing goes for aircraft that survived an incident or crash. Many aircraft suffer incidents throughout their life spans (such as crumpled landing gear, damaged vertical stabilizer, uncontrollable exploding engine, etc.) but can be deemed airworthy and repaired to flying condition. This aircraft was involved in an incident in 2005. It is a vehicle like a car, and it can be repaired to work again. One thing to note is that the nations where popular aircraft reside have strict laws and standards in making an aircraft. Redundancies in vital systems, high quality construction material, and designs that are tried and true from experienced aircraft makers and, tragically, lessons from air accidents. This results in sturdy and sometimes rugged aircraft. The reason air crashes become prominent in the news is because of the quick way an aircraft crashes into the Earth and the devastating landscape of a crash site. And I cannot fathom how many times people would bat an eye to headlines similar to ‘CAR RUNS OFF ROAD, ENTIRE FAMILY KILLED.’
As for the crash itself, it is too early to tell what brought it down. A proper investigation required chemical analysis (to cross out possibility of explosive or anti-air missile), analysis of aircraft parts to look for possible metal fatigue, air traffic audio tapes and radar data (since the aircraft did not carry an onboard data recorder), and all available maintenance records and interviews of mechanics leading up to, at least, a year. Every accident starts with everything being a possible cause and it is a tedious detective work to sum it up to one or a few causes leading to the crash.
The preliminary data available suggests that the aircraft suffered a loss of control at 28,000 feet.  Now, an old aircraft works like any car. Each one has its flying twitches and unique characteristics (like it slowly rolling to the right as a car would slowly steer to the right in a straight road). This is why it is good to have the same pilot flying the same aircraft as the pilot is used to these characteristics and knows how to correct them in flight. The aircraft could have possibly rolled to the left or right. Perhaps a turbulent bump in the air exaggerated that flight characteristic, caught the pilot off guard, and caused the aircraft to dive uncontrollably into the ground. I honestly don’t know. I don’t have access to the flight records or investigation data.
Here is an article from the Smithsonian Institute regarding a plane’s age and how to check its airworthiness with nondestructive evaluation.
Here is a link (in Spanish) of a press release from the Secretary of Communications and Transportation regarding the crash.
Images obtained from Wikimedia Commons

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