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Read the complete transcript of this episode, which aired on April 6th, 2004.

Episode 5: Crash Site Secrets

Business people making same-day trips between New York and Chicago. Elderly couples heading north from Florida to visit their grandchildren. Families on long-awaited vacations -- millions of us fly for millions of reasons. And though we're told that car accidents are far more common than air crashes, many of us experience at least some degree of trepidation every time we board those big commercial jetliners. In the wake of terrorist attacks like those of September 11th and the bombing of Pan Am 103, and given air disasters like TWA 800 over Long Island and SwissAir 111 over Nova Scotia, such concern is understandable.

Many of us experience at least some degree of trepidation every time we board those big commercial jetliners.
Too often, gaping holes in airport security or structural problems with aircraft go undetected --or worse, ignored -- until they result in the death of hundreds of innocent people. Then, fueled by public outcry and the demand for "something to be done," technology is hustled forward, legislation is rushed through, and new devices are implemented to ensure that a particular accident never happens again. This kind of "tombstone technology" -- improvements made after the problem has had a deadly impact -- is the subject of "Crash Site Secrets."

This documentary profiles some of the worst tragedies in aviation history, looking at what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how -- ironically -- the failures make flying safer for all of us. Former NTSB Air Accident Investigator Greg Feith guides the program with his unique insight as "Crash Site Secrets" traces the key technologies in aviation safety, many of which were developed long before they were put into use but kept on hold because of industry resistance. The mysterious loss of three early jetliners prompted the use of the black box, but pilots and airlines were vehemently opposed to it at first. The demand for cockpit video recorders after the presumed suicide crashes of two flights -- a SilkAir 737 in Indonesia and an EgyptAir flight off the coast of Nantucket -- was once again resisted by the pilots. There's also the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which was set in place after a mid-air collision over Los Angeles in the '80s event though it had actually been in existence since the 1960s. Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR), which detects lethal windshear pockets before the pilot hits them and is considered the "most dramatic" improvement in air safety yet, wasn't pushed forward until after a number of deadly windshear accidents. And the fuel tank inerting system, devised in 1983 but opposed by the industry because it was too heavy, would have prevented the explosion that brought down TWA Flight 800.

Astonishingly, these delayed safety decisions are often due to simple cost/benefit analysis. The airlines weigh the cost of installing the most effective new safety technologies against what they determine is the cost of a crash -- not until a safety feature becomes financially viable are changes implemented. Today, of course, the threat of terrorism is paramount among passengers' concerns. "Crash Site Secrets" highlights the startling Assisted Recovery System, which can detect the presence of mountains or buildings like the Twin Towers and override the pilots, preventing them from accidentally or even intentionally steering the plane into harm's way.

Producer/Director: David Darlow

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