Las Vegas Review-Journal 
Thursday, May 9, 1996 
Page 18A

Official: Lack of black boxes in military planes a national scandal

`lt's just a national scandal that they would be flying a high U.S.
delegation around in a war zone without the basic tools to determine the
cause of an accident.

James Burnett Former NTSB chairman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON  After two near collisions involving the vice president's
plane in 1984, the Nationa] Transportation Safety Board fired off memos
recommending modern flight data recorders be installed in military

The, agency's former chairman James Burnett, now calls the military's
failure to complete the job a "national scandal" that impedes
investigations such as the one involving the crash of Commerce Secretary
Ron Brown's plane.

"We were told they would retrofit these planes. Why didn't they complete
the job? That's what I would like to know," Burnett said Tuesday in an
interview with The Associated Press. "What happened?"

"It's just a national scandal that they would be flying a high U.S.
delegation around in a war zone without the basic tools to determine the
cause of an accident," added Burnett' NTSB chairman between 1982 and

The Air Force T-43 plane that crashed April 3 into a hillside in
Croatia, killing 35 people, including Brown and 32 other Americans,
wasn't equipped with cockpit voice or flight data recorders. The plane,
based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, also had been used to ferry other
VIPs, including first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Air Force has said the question of why Brown's plane wasn't equipped
with so-called black boxes is part of its investigation into the crash.

"We have not been able to ascertain why this ... aircraft was not
equipped with them," said Maj. Robin Chandler, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Other Air Force officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have
suggested cost may have played a role in deciding against retrofitting
the T-43 with black boxes. A top-tobottom overhaul could cost $7

Money was an overriding concern in the entire retrofit program,
according to a 1985 memo to the NTSB from former Defense Secretary
Caspar Weinberger.

"Retrofit of existing aircraft is slesyd a more expensive proposition;
therefore, our retrofit programs have been undertaken only after a
careful analysis of cost/benefit and mishap potential," Weinberger

Weinberger promised, however, to equip with modern black boxes the
entire 89th Military Airlift Wing based at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.,
whose primary role is transporting VIPs, including President Clinton.

In response, then-NTSB Chairman Burnett wrote Weinberger that the safety
board recommended "installation of flight data recorders and cockpit
voice recorders in all current aircraft used to transport passengers."

Four years later, then-Defense  Secretary Dick Cheney was asked in a
1989 NTSB memo for an update. "The board has not received any
correspondence ... since Feb. 4, 1985," the memo said.

Three more years passed before the NTSB closed its safety review on Nov.
12, 1992, after the Defense Department said it had retrofitted with
up-to-date black boxes much of its fleet, including 100 percent of C130s
and C141s, and 43 percent of C-5 transport planes, and would complete
the process. The Army also was retrofitting its Black Hawk helicopters.

"These efforts ... fulill the intent of the safety recommendation,"
thenNTSB Chairman Carl Vogt wrote to Cheney.

In the case of the Brown plane, the military version of a Boeing 737 was
purchased in 1973 to train navigators so it had no built-in black boxes.

In 1988, the plane was converted for VIP travel without putting in voice
and data recorders, which was against Air Force policy established in
1974 to require I such equipment for all new I passenger-style planes.

Because of the Brown crash,  Defense Secretary William Perry in late
April ordered the military services to install new navigation aids on
passenger planes.  The project, with an estimated cost of $335 million,
also includes an accelerated plan to complete installation of flight
data recorders.

Maj. Monica Alisio, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said
Wednesday that the Pentagon had no figures on how many military planes
that transport passengers currently don't have black boxes.

The current NTSB chairman, Jim Hall, has praised Perry for his action,
saying "civilian passengers aboard military transports should be
afforded the same level of safety as those aboard commercial airliners."

Federal Aviation Administration rules require flight data recorders in
commercial passenger planes, but exempt military aircraft.

In the cases that prompted the NTSB review, then-Vice President George
Bush had close encounters with civilian aircraft in two separate
military planes equipped with obsolete black boxes that weren't working

In the Sept. 30, 1984, incident near Akron, Ohio, the flight data
recorder wasn't functioning when Air Force Two came within 600 feet of a
private plane, according to the 1984 NTSB memo.

In the Oct. 18, 1984, incident, Air Force Two pilots failed to spot an
approaching private plane near Seattle. The flight data recorder was
working, but was out of sync, making the data  incorrect.


[ Parent ]