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Unflappable investigator "has been there before'

When Robert Francis flies, he prefers the cockpit.

As vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Francis carries a gold badge that lets him get through police lines to visit crash sites. It also entitles him to ride in the cockpit jump seat when he takes an airline flight.

The jump seat may not be as comfortable as one in the passenger cabin, but he gets a chance to see pilots in action and talk with them in their own environment.

"As much as I fly, I still learn something every time," he said.

His cockpit experience has been valuable this summer. For the second time in two months, Francis is at the center of a major crash investigation. In May he was the NTSB board member at the ValuJet crash in Miami, enduring the media barrage during the painfully slow process to recover wreckage from the Everglades.

Now he is the board's spokesman for an equally difficult case, the crash of TWA Flight 800. Like the ValuJet crash, progress has been exceedingly slow. It took five days for investigators to find the main fuselage section. It could take several more before they lift it from the sea.

To make the task more complicated, hundreds of FBI agents are working side by side with the NTSB because of the possibility that a bomb caused the crash. The two agencies have distinctly different techniques and cultures. Safety board investigators are looking for the probable cause. The FBI wants a conviction.

It has been Francis' job to bridge that gap and make sure the FBI and the NTSB work together.

Colleagues say he is well-suited for the job. As the former Federal Aviation Administration representative to Western Europe and North Africa, Francis, 58, was involved in the investigation of Pan Am Flight 103. That accident, which was blamed on a terrorist bomb, involved investigators from the FBI, the CIA and aviation agencies from around the world.

"He has been there before, both literally and figuratively," said George Black, a fellow board member of the NTSB.

Joseph Del Balzo, a former acting administrator of the FAA who worked with Francis for two decades, calls him "the consummate diplomat. He's got the ability to make his point, to state what he feels strongly about, but do it in a way that is very sensitive to the people he is dealing with."

That was important during Francis' European assignment, when he had to mediate between the FAA and European governments and aircraft manufacturers. In New York this week, he has met with family members of the TWA victims. At nearly every news conference, he has emphasized that the families' needs come first.

"We are concentrating on the people," he said Monday night. "We are not concentrating on aluminum."

Francis has a commercial pilot's license, but colleagues say he is not afraid to admit when he doesn't understand a technical issue. "He's a quick learner," said Del Balzo. "He really takes the time to do his homework."

Like his FBI counterpart, James Kallstrom, Francis has roots in Massachusetts. He grew up in Cohasset and got a degree from Williams College. But unlike the fiery Kallstrom, who has come close to blaming terrorists for the crash, Francis is more cautious.

In his daily news briefings and wall-to-wall appearances on morning news shows, Francis talks slowly and deliberately, urging reporters not to jump to conclusions.

"He's unflappable," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., who has known Francis since the two were congressional aides back in the early 1970s. "He knows the role of the NTSB is not to be a headline hunter but to do their work quietly and deliberately. And that's his demeanor, patient and careful."

It was pure luck that he was assigned to both crashes this summer. The NTSB's five board members rotate being on call each week to accompany the agency's Go Team for a major accident. Francis' name just happened to come up both times.

_ Information from Newsday was used in this report.