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28 SECONDS // The Mystery of USAir Flight 427

Published Apr. 9, 1999|Updated Jul. 6, 2006

PART THREE: Roxie, Trixie and the fat guy

It had been six months since the crash of the 737 and Tom Haueter's investigation was stymied. His prime suspect was the rudder, but he couldn't be sure what made it move. The pilots? Or was there a gremlin in the 737, a mechanical flaw that could bring down another jet?

Birds inspired us to build airplanes, but our feathered friends still control the skies. A flock of birds can take down a jetliner and give us a humble reminder that humans were not meant to fly.

Ever since a sea gull collided with a Wright brothers plane in 1912, birds and planes have had an uneasy coexistence. A flock of starlings caused the 1960 crash of a Lockheed Electra in Boston. Speckled pigeons brought down a 737 in Ethiopia, killing 35 people. The laws of physics transform a bird into a missile. When a 4-pound turkey vulture hits a plane flying at 260 knots, the bird delivers the force of 14 tons.

NTSB investigators found no feathers in the wreckage of Flight 427, but they discovered a suspicious brown clump that glowed under a blacklight, which indicated it could be from a bird. And it was possible that migrating geese were at the same altitude.

Chief investigator Tom Haueter was skeptical. "Let's bring the theory up now and bury it," he said. "I don't want to have it haunting me a year from now."

It was time to call in the world's premier feather expert, a tiny woman at the Smithsonian Institution named Roxie Laybourne.

She won't reveal her age, but she's been studying feathers for more than 50 years. She can examine a feather that's been chewed up by a jet engine and tell if it came from a laughing gull or a Franklin's gull. She can identify many by touch. Eagle feathers are smooth, vultures are rough.

It was Laybourne who identified the whistling swans that collided with a DC-10 and the herring gull that broke through the canopy of a Harrier military jet. Her only evidence was a tiny fragment of down from the pilot's shoulder patch.

When Laybourne has a guess about a breed, she walks through the darkened hallways of the Smithsonian "Range," a creepy room filled with 650,000 dead birds. She pulls out a drawer, picks up a few bird cadavers and _ voila! _ a match.

Laybourne took the dime-sized clump and examined it under the magnifying glass she wore around her neck. She took a closer look under her microscope. No, Laybourne said, nothing here but dirt and vegetation. No bird.

+ + +

As Brett Van Bortel flew to Pittsburgh, the plane hit turbulence.

"Nervous flier, huh?" the man next to him said. "They say your odds of dying in a plane crash are higher than winning the lottery."

Brett couldn't let that go. He pulled a card from his wallet about his scholarship fund in honor of Joan, with her picture on it.

"That plane that crashed in Pittsburgh," Brett said, "my wife was on it."

It was his first flight since Joan died. He had driven around the country visiting relatives for almost three months. When it came time for the NTSB hearing on the crash in January 1995, Brett decided it was time to confront his fears. He chose American Airlines because it had no 737s.

After Brett mentioned Joan's crash, the man told Brett about his own tragedy, how his daughter had been molested by his ex-wife's new husband. Brett had heard a lot of sad stories since Joan died. When people found out about Brett's tragedy, they wanted to share their tales, like they were reassuring him he wasn't alone.

A Newsweek photographer told Brett that his brother overdosed on drugs. A cab driver said his parents died when he was 12. A woman who handled Joan's pension said a drunken driver put her brother and sister-in-law in comas and killed their child.

Tragedies everywhere. Until this happened, Brett had no idea that for so many, life could be filled with such heartache.

At the Hilton in downtown Pittsburgh, he kept to himself, not getting involved with other family members who were starting a support group. Though he shared their goals, he didn't want to dwell on the crash any more than he had to.

The families were furious about USAir's poorly trained employees, their slow response the night of the crash and the airline's refusal to release Flight 427's seating chart.

The format of the NTSB hearing also aggravated them. The safety board called it a public hearing, so families assumed they would be able to ask questions, like at a city council meeting. But at NTSB hearings, the public was to be seen and not heard. This was the safety board's chance to explain the evidence. There would be no questions from the crowd.

The families took their complaints about USAir to the news media. Calling themselves the Flight 427 Air Disaster Support League, they stood before the TV cameras, holding color photos of relatives who died in the crash.

"We believe the system is deeply flawed," said Marita Brunner, the organizer of the group, whose mother-in-law was on the plane. "We are demanding that this process be taken away from the airline."

NTSB investigators had never been close to victims' families, feeling that their job was to solve crashes, not provide grief counseling. But when NTSB Chairman Jim Hall heard the families were unhappy, he arranged a private session with them.

He and Haueter got an earful. The families recited a long list of complaints and suggested that in future crashes, the government appoint a "family advocate" to represent relatives.

They found a sympathetic friend in Hall, a Democrat close to Vice President Al Gore who was an unknown in transportation circles. When he was appointed to the NTSB, a Washington Post columnist called him "a politically connected white male Democrat whose only transportation experience apparently is a driver's license."

Hall seemed like a lightweight to people in aviation because he didn't talk like an engineer. His investigators would drone on about dual concentric servo valves, then Hall would recount a folksy story his mother taught him. It didn't help that he had a dog named Trixie in his office. A brown and white Welsh corgi, Trixie occasionally pooped on Hall's carpet.

The truth was that Hall was no lightweight. He was savvy about the self-interest of Boeing and the pilots union, and his connections at the White House and in Congress gave him clout to get the money and staff the NTSB needed. It just didn't look that way when he was throwing tennis balls for Trixie.

Hall promised the victims' families that he would help. But the families they weren't about to let it end there. They planned to take their concerns all the way to President Clinton.

+ + +

With the investigation boiling down to a debate about why Flight 427's rudder suddenly twisted left, Boeing witnesses at the hearing spent hours explaining how the rudder was controlled by a unique valve the size of a soda can. The engineers recounted the endless tests since the crash and how the valve had passed them all.

For Jean McGrew, Boeing's chief engineer for the 737, the hearing was a lesson in the new politics of aviation safety. He quickly sized up the situation when he walked into the Hilton ballroom and saw the families sitting together. He decided the hearing wasn't to advance the investigation, it was just a charade for the NTSB to showboat.

On the witness stand, McGrew spoke proudly of the 737, like he was boasting about his kid's SAT scores. The plane's rate of hull losses (Boeing's euphemism for the word crash) was extremely low. Besides, he said, the soda can valve had passed every test. "That leads us, based on that data, to think that the rudder was doing what it was asked to be doing."

In other words, the pilots screwed up.

Boeing had complied with an NTSB request for a list of other 737 rudder incidents; but then the NTSB discovered that Boeing knew about still more rudder incidents it had not included. Hall was furious. But he didn't ask McGrew about it in private. He waited until McGrew was on the witness stand, then tore into him.

"When we end up in a situation, Mr. McGrew, just to be straight with you, that we request information and then another party sends us information that is pertinent that we didn't get from you, it causes concern."

McGrew felt ambushed. Earlier that week, he had given the NTSB a thorough explanation why the incidents were missed. He felt Hall was just grandstanding, trashing Boeing to get publicity.

McGrew was in a delicate position. Boeing was part of the investigation under the NTSB's unusual "party system," which enlisted help from the airlines, unions and aircraft manufacturers. Boeing could lobby the safety board, but it had to be careful not to ruffle feathers.

Still, McGrew and Co. were troubled by the NTSB's fixation on the plane. So two weeks after the hearing, Boeing launched a campaign to blame Flight 427's pilots for the crash. In a letter to Haueter, the company suggested the pilots mistakenly stomped on the left rudder pedal.

To McGrew, it made perfect sense. The investigation had boiled down to a man or machine debate about what moved the rudder. The NTSB had spent most of its time looking at the machine but hardly any looking at the men.

For Haueter, the timing was perfect. His investigation had sunk into a lull; the letter was just the jolt he needed to kick-start things. He faxed it along to the pilots union and got the predictable response. The union went ballistic.

"We don't want to see the reputations of the pilots compromised because (the NTSB) can't find an answer to what caused the accident," said Herb LeGrow, a USAir pilot in Clearwater who served as the union's coordinator for the crash. He was ready to fight Boeing.

"It's David and Goliath at this point," he said. "If it gets down and dirty, I'm willing to fight. We'll sharpen up our slingshots and fight them."

He fired off his own letter to the safety board, accusing Boeing of trying to divert the investigation. LeGrow said pilots Peter Germano and Charles Emmett III had their hands on the wheel, "fighting for control of an aircraft that was uncontrollable. As they watched the ground rush up in the windscreen, they fought for the lives of their passengers."

The dueling letters revealed the sharp rift in the investigation as the two sides fought for their interests.

Boeing had billions of dollars at stake. It wasn't the lawsuits the company feared _ the cost of settlements was small change for a company that earned $856-million in profit the previous year. What really worried Boeing was the impact it would have on 737 sales if people believed the plane was unsafe. The 737 accounted for nearly half of all the planes Boeing made. With two mysterious accidents _ the USAir crash and, three years earlier, a United Airlines crash in Colorado Springs _ it wouldn't take much for the public to lose confidence in the plane.

McGrew often said that if the investigators found that the 737 malfunctioned, he would quickly fix the airplane. But he didn't want his plane's reputation smeared if the pilots caused the crash.

For the union, the stakes were simple: pride.

It dated back to the union's roots in the 1930s, when pilots were forced to fly into bad weather and then got blamed when their planes crashed. That angered the union, which felt the government was using the pilots as scapegoats.

The union was determined not to let that happen on USAir 427. The pilots would not take the fall.

+ + +

Some days for Haueter went like this:

9 a.m. Boeing calls and whines about the investigation.

10 a.m. The pilots union calls and whines.

11 a.m. It is USAir's turn, followed by a second Boeing whining session after lunch.

Haueter believed in the party system, but there were too many days when everybody behaved like children.

Even within his own agency, Haueter felt thwarted.

He couldn't prove why the rudder moved left, but he felt the NTSB had uncovered enough problems with the 737 to warrant major changes. Five months after the crash, Greg Phillips, the NTSB hydraulics expert, had drafted a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration that called for major improvements to the 737's rudder system.

As a government watchdog, the NTSB had no real power. Its clout depended on its recommendations to the FAA. Although those recommendations got accepted more than 80 percent of the time, there was a fierce rivalry between the two agencies. Even when the FAA agreed with an NTSB recommendation, The FAA rarely gave credit to the safety board.

Haueter knew the FAA was writing its own safety study of the 737, relying heavily on the NTSB's work. He didn't want the FAA to get the glory. "These guys are going to beat us to the punch with our data," Haueter told Bud Laynor, the NTSB's deputy chief of aviation safety.

But Laynor blocked the recommendations. He said the 737 had more than 60-million flight hours with no crashes blamed on the rudder. Without proof, Laynor said, it was premature to order changes. He wouldn't budge.

Phillips complained loudly that the fixes were crucial to make 737s safe. Haueter felt so strongly that he went over Laynor's head to Chairman Jim Hall. But Hall was unwilling to challenge Laynor, who was regarded as one of the board's best technical minds. The 737 safety fixes would have to wait, gathering dust on Laynor's desk.

+ + +

The phone rang just as Haueter and his wife, Trisha Dedik, were headed out on a Friday night. It was one of Haueter's bosses. They ended up talking for two hours.

So much for Haueter and Dedik's Friday night. She was livid. The investigation interrupted all their plans. Worse, she was afraid it was destroying her husband.

They had met the way many Washingtonians fall in love _ in a car pool. On one of their first dates, she saw that Haueter was a different breed. He was waiting in the kitchen while she got dressed. When she came downstairs, he had taken apart her kitchen faucet and was studying its inner workings.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I just wanted to figure out how it worked," he said.

That was Haueter: figuring out how things worked _ or why they didn't.

When Haueter joined the NTSB in 1984, he didn't expect to stay long. It was just a paycheck. But he discovered that the NTSB was surprisingly powerful. His recommendations to the FAA got results.

Dedik worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, in charge of "The List," the countries that were allowed to get nuclear fuel. As she put it, her job was "to make sure the Husseins of the world can't get their hands on nuclear weapons." Haueter's work led to safer airplanes. Dedik kept the world from getting nuked.

One of the things that attracted her to Haueter was that he wasn't married to his job like so many Washington men. But as the investigation neared the one-year mark, she saw that he had changed. He was obsessed.

They would be having a perfectly nice conversation and she would see his mind drift away as he contemplated some damn theory about the damn accident. It bugged her that people from the NTSB and Boeing called him at home day or night.

These guys _ and nearly all of them were guys _ treated her like she was Haueter's secretary.

"I don't care about the office, I don't care about 427, I don't care about anything," she told him one night. "The victims are dead. There is nothing you can do about it. You know what? It's not going to make any difference whether you solve this today or tomorrow. There is nothing that is so important that you have to deal with it right now."

Some nights she would give him 10 minutes to talk about the crash and make him promise not to bring it up again.

"Is it so awful to have an investigation unsolved?" she asked. "Does that mean you're a failure?"

"Yes," he said.

+ + +

A year had passed since Brett lost Joan, and still he hadn't dated anyone. He wasn't sure he'd ever be ready.

"If I meet someone in the future that I want to marry, she will know deep down inside that this would not be happening, we would not be having children, had I not lost the first love of my life," he said.

He reluctantly returned to Pittsburgh in September 1995 for the one-year anniversary. He would have preferred to avoid the memories, but he wanted to honor Joan at a memorial service on the hill where she died.

Before the service, Brett and Joan's brother Dan Lahart visited the Sewickley Cemetery, where USAir had built a monument to the victims. The monument itself had been a disaster.

A few weeks after the crash, USAir said it wanted to buy the Hopewell crash site for a memorial. Several victims' relatives put their plans to buy the land on hold when USAir said it was interested.

A month later, the airline scrapped the idea, much to the dismay of the families. Instead, the company bought three big tombstones at the cemetery, 10 miles from the crash site. The inscription said,

IN LOVING MEMORY OF OUR FAMILY MEMBERS AND FRIENDS INTERRED HERE WHO DIED SEPTEMBER 8, 1994.

No mention of the crash or of USAir. The families were furious.

The airline said that it was just trying to be sensitive and did not want to give families another painful reminder.

Finally, the airline built a granite bench about 20 yards from the tombstones that said,

THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED TO THE PASSENGERS AND CREW ON USAIR FLIGHT 427.

When Brett and Dan arrived at the cemetery, workers were planting 132 tulips that would honor the victims. Brett chatted with a woman whose husband was on the plane. She said she often visited the memorial early in the morning, when the cemetery was peaceful.

Brett found it anything but peaceful. The cemetery sat beneath the flight path to the Pittsburgh airport. As he gazed at a memorial to one of the worst plane crashes in the nation's history, USAir planes roared overhead.

That evening, Brett and his brother-in-law Dan boarded one of the first buses that climbed the gravel road and stopped at the crash site. Brett walked down the hill toward the place he called ground zero, where the plane's nose had hit the ground.

As the service began, a 737 happened to pass overhead. Brett looked up at the sky. At 7:03, the time of the crash, church bells pealed throughout the city.

+ + +

They had tested everything from bombs to birds. Now it was time to test fat guys.

The theory went like this: A fat passenger could have stepped through the floor of the USAir plane and landed on a cable that moved the rudder. Crazy as it sounded, it had some credence. Maintenance records showed a temporary floor patch in the first few rows of seats. A huge man, possibly 300 pounds, had been on the jet on a previous flight.

Investigators scoffed at the theory: Some joked that the guy would have to have worn spiked high heels. But Haueter was willing to try just about anything because his best theory _ a malfunction in the soda can valve _ had not been proven.

They gathered in a hangar in Seattle in February 1996. A ratchet was hooked to the rudder cable of a 737 so they could add weight in 50-pound increments and watch as the man went from skinny to obese.

The guy started at 50 pounds, more of a kindergartener than a fat guy. No movement of the rudder.

At 150 pounds, the rudder barely budged. At 250 pounds, the rudder moved only 3 degrees, not even close to the 18-21 degrees it had moved on Flight 427.

So much for blaming the fat guy.

Across the street, Boeing was conducting an unusual lobbying campaign with the chairman of the NTSB.

Boeing test pilot Michael Hewett, a bulky former Navy pilot, led Chairman Hall into a flight simulator and pointed him to the right pilot's seat. Hall could pretend he was Charles Emmett, the first officer on Flight 427. He could take control of the plane and try to keep it from crashing.

Hewett came across as brash and cocky. His not-so-subtle message to Hall was that any pilot worth his salt could have kept Flight 427 from crashing. When the plane rolled left, the USAir crew should have turned the wheel to the right and pushed it forward to let the airplane gain speed. The plane would have lost altitude, but everyone would have survived. Simple.

Hall buckled himself in, with John Cox of the pilots union in the observer seat. Hall had invited Cox along because he knew Hewett was going to do a hard sell. He wanted Cox to provide a counterpoint.

Hewett started by demonstrating the recovery himself. Now it was Hall's turn.

When the rudder suddenly twisted to one side, Hall followed Hewett's instructions and quickly turned the wheel to the right.

"Hold it! Hold it!" Hewett told him.

The simulator started to plunge toward the ground but Hall stopped the roll and brought the nose back up. "Ease it out," Hewett said. Hall had saved the plane and 132 lives.

Cox spoke up. He said it was understandable that the pilots pulled back on the control wheel _ a fact that everyone agreed helped to cause the crash. If they looked out the window, all they saw was the ground looming closer.

"The airplane is not responding the way they want it to," Cox argued. "The windscreen is full of the ground and it is understandable that they would try to reduce the number of variables that they are facing."

"But," said Hewett, "anybody who has ever been trained in a jet knows, with the stick shaker going off, the only way to recover is to let up on the stick. His first reaction should have been to push up on the stick," rather than pull.

Hall tried the simulator again. "There's the rudder in full hard," Hewett said. "Right wheel! Right wheel!"

But Hall turned left. The plane crashed. "I almost recovered," Hall said.

After the session, Hall said Hewett was too heavy-handed. The Boeing engineers had nearly 18 months to figure out how to regain control. The pilots had 10 seconds.

+ + +

June 9, 1996. As Eastwind Airlines Flight 517 neared the airport in Richmond, Va., a bump came from the back of the plane.

The nose swung right and the right wing dipped toward the ground. Back in the passenger cabin, a flight attendant was thrown into some seats.

Capt. Brian Bishop stomped on the left rudder pedal, but it felt stiff. He turned the wheel to the left and added power to the right engine. That stopped the plane from rolling, but he could not get the wings level.

The plane, leaning awkwardly to the right, the plane was heading straight for the lights of downtown Richmond. Bishop looked for an area with no lights. If he had to put the 737 down, he wanted to do it away from homes and buildings.

Suddenly the rudder seemed to return to normal. The wings rolled back to the left. But then came another thump and the plane rolled right again.

"Declare an emergency," Bishop told the first officer. "Tell them we've got a flight control problem."

Again, the rudder seemed to release. Bishop leveled off the plane and turned toward the airport. Fire trucks were waiting beside the runway with red lights flashing as he touched down. Bishop realized his knees were shaking.

When NTSB engineers analyzed the Eastwind flight data recorder, they discovered the rudder had gone much farther than it should have _ to at least 7 degrees.

A scary brush with disaster, but for Haueter, it might be a breakthrough for his 2-year-old investigation. He would get to talk to a pilot who experienced a rudder malfunction and survived. They would do a flight test in the Eastwind plane to see how a pilot would react to a sudden rudder movement. Brian Bishop would be the guinea pig.

A week later, Hewett, the Boeing test pilot, and several NTSB investigators arranged a conference call with Bishop to explain how the test would go. Hewett, as usual, was coming on strong. Haueter felt he was trying to bully Bishop by questioning his memory of that night and suggesting he might have done something wrong.

"Stop it!" Haueter said. "You're trying to intimidate this guy."

Hewett said he was just trying to get Bishop to understand what happened that night. "I want these airline pilots to be as good a pilot as I am," he said.

Haueter was furious. It was classic intimidation. He felt Boeing was trying to influence the test.

Hewett was equally angry. He felt the NTSB was acting like the Gestapo, limiting what questions he could ask. He wasn't trying to influence Bishop, all he wanted was an accurate story from him.

When Bishop arrived for the flight test, Haueter warned him about Hewett, who would fly with him in the cockpit. "Look, the purpose of this is that I want to know your perceptions. Don't let anybody talk you out of anything."

They flew to a restricted military area over the Atlantic Ocean, away from a populated area. If the rudder went hard to one side, they wouldn't wipe out a whole neighborhood.

Bishop flew the same speed as on June 9th. Without warning, an FAA pilot sitting behind Bishop pushed a button that swung the rudder. Bishop stomped on the opposite rudder pedal and eased the plane back to wings level.

"This isn't even a tenth of what we felt that night," Bishop told Hewett.

"Well, it was dark out, you weren't expecting it," Hewett said. He seemed to be offering more excuses to show Bishop exaggerated.

"This wasn't even close," Bishop said.

To Haueter, Eastwind Flight 517 had become as suspicious as USAir 427. The rudder had not behaved the way it was supposed to.

+ + +

McGrew knew Boeing was in trouble: Haueter wasn't buying the company's theory that the pilots overreacted. It seemed like people at the safety board had made up their minds to blame the airplane, even though there was no proof the rudder had malfunctioned.

So McGrew and others at Boeing decided it was time to throw the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

They would go over Haueter's head directly to the NTSB board members, the five political appointees who would vote on the cause of the crash.

It was an extraordinary step sure to upset people at the NTSB, but it might be Boeing's only hope.

The result was a spiral-bound booklet called "Boeing Contribution to the USAir Flight 427 Accident Investigation Board." It did not mince words. It said the pilots caused the crash.

Sure enough, the blunt message annoyed Haueter. He saw the booklet as Boeing's effort to do an end-run around the NTSB staff to stop the safety recommendations for the 737.

After being stalled for 15 months, the recommendations had come back to life. Bud Laynor, the NTSB engineer who had blocked them, had retired. Haueter and Phillips found a more receptive audience in Bernard Loeb, the new head of aviation safety, who helped to get support from the NTSB board members.

They unanimously approved the recommendations. The Boeing "Contribution" had fizzled.

While Boeing was fighting, USAir was lying low.

The airline had taken a financial beating after the crash, losing $150-million in bookings because passengers were afraid that it was unsafe. It had been bruised by news stories and nasty jokes. One Internet Web site suggested new slogans for the airline, including: "Complimentary champagne during free-fall."

USAir wanted to disassociate itself from the crash and, so far, had avoided taking sides. The company was in a Catch-22. If the crash were blamed on the pilots, that was a black eye for the airline. But if it were blamed on the plane, USAir would have to reassure travelers that its 220 other 737s were safe.

+ + +

As Brett walked into the 13th floor conference room that overlooked the Chicago River, he thought about snubbing USAir lawyer Ann Goodman by refusing to shake her hand. After all, she represented the airline that killed Joan. It seemed reasonable that he didn't have to be nice.

It had been nearly two years since the crash, and Brett had come to Goodman's law office to give a deposition to help the lawyers determine how much Joan's life was worth.

To people unfamiliar with civil cases, that process seemed cold and heartless. But there was a logic to it. The amount Brett received from USAir and Boeing would be based on pure economics _ how much Joan could be expected to earn in her lifetime, minus how much she would spend. The companies were entitled to ask about anything that might predict how much she would earn, how long she and Brett would be married and how long she would live.

It had been nearly two years since the crash and Brett had started a new life. He had sold the house he and Joan shared in Lisle and immersed himself in a new venture to open a restaurant. It would be like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, but with a dinosaur theme. T. Rex's Dino World Cafe, he called it, "the only restaurant where you're not at the top of the food chain."

When he saw Goodman in the conference room, Brett decided to be respectful. He shook her hand and took a seat. His lawyer Mike Demetrio appeared to immerse himself in a magazine, but was listening carefully, ready to object at any moment.

"Mr. Van Bortel, my name is Ann Goodman, I'm one of the attorneys representing USAir in this matter."

Reading from a lengthy script of questions, Goodman robotically moved from topic to topic, asking Brett about his homes, mortgages, educational background, even what medicine he was taking.

"Did you marry a woman by the name of Joan Lahart, correct?"

"Joan Elizabeth Lahart," Brett said.

"What was it that attracted you to Joan?"

"I don't know that I could put that in a nutshell," Brett said. "It would be a combination of many things, but I thought she was a very beautiful woman and a very strong-willed and motivated woman."

Goodman asked about Joan's hobbies, whether they went to football games, how much they paid for the house on Riedy Road. She asked Brett to describe the last time he had seen Joan and how he found out about the crash.

"It was our ritual for me to drop her off at the train station in Lisle for her 6:20 train, which I did that morning."

"What did you say to her, and she say to you?"

"I think I just said "Love you and goodbye.' " Brett started to cry.

"Did you talk to her during the course of the day?"

He nodded.

Goodman asked about every painful detail, what they said when they spoke that afternoon, how he heard about the crash, when he called USAir, when he got confirmation she had been on the plane and when he received Joan's remains. Then she asked about Brett's visits to a psychologist.

"Did Dr. Pimental help you?"

"In some ways, but ultimately, no."

"How was she able to help you?"

"I would say helping me understand myself better and my reaction to it, but I ultimately came to the conclusion that no one but God was ever going to change what happened, and talking about it would not help me."

Goodman shifted gears again.

"How would you describe your marriage to her?"

"Excellent. We got along like best friends. I was very fortunate. I don't know why or how it happened, but I was one of the people that had one of the very good ones. I was very lucky."

"Did you plan to have any children."

"Yes."

"Had you made any attempts to start a family?"

"No."

"Were you waiting for a certain period of time?"

"Yes."

"How long had you planned on waiting?"

"About another year."

"How would you describe your physical relationship with Joan?"

"Very good. I don't know, kind of guess I'm uncomfortable describing it. It was very good."

"You had normal sexual relations with her?"

"Yes."

"On a regular basis?"

"Yes."

"What was the frequency?"

Brett looked at his lawyer to see if he would object. When he did not, Brett looked back at Goodman, pitying her for having to ask such a question. She probably goes home and hates herself, Brett thought.

Realizing that he had no choice, he gave her the answer.

Goodman asked who did the cleaning at their house, who took out the garbage, who did the laundry, who shoveled snow off the driveway, who did the grocery shopping, who did the cooking, who did the dishes. Who paid the bills? Did he have his bank statements from 1994? How much was the electric bill? The gas bill? How was Joan's health? Did she smoke? How much did she drink? How much did she weigh? Was she ever convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?

Brett answered them all.

"Do you have any plans to remarry?"

"No."

"It's like the story of two guys and a hole. One guy is digging the dirt out and the other guy is throwing the dirt back in. They are not getting anything done, but it sure is getting attention."

_ Tom Haueter

The passengers and crew of USAir Flight 427

Johne Bigelow-Abbott

William Aher

Ani Ardhaldjian

Narod Ardhaldjian

Thomas Arrigoni

Daniel Averill

Laurie Baer

Marshall L. Berkman

Harry F. Bernard

Lee Scott Blake

Ron Brown

Ronald Cale

Stanley Canty

Daniel A. Clark

Guy Clegg

Lawrence Cole

Robert Connolly

John Cooper

Michael Cosseboom

Timothy Davis

Randall Dellefield

John T. Dickens

Marla Dickerson

Karen Dickson

Joseph Duffy

James Eller

Charles Emmett III

Dwight Evans

Robert J. Evans

Michael Felger

Lisa Ferm

Charles Fiantaca

Kevin Flaherty

David Garber

Peter Germano

Richard Garmhausen

Jeffrey Gingerich

Leonard Grasso

Larry Grondin

Sarah Elizabeth Slocum-Hamley

Gary Hapach

Charles Hardobey

Tom Harger

Mary Havlin

Walter Heiligenberg

Steve Heintz

Joy Henderson

Melvin Henry

Scott Holden

David C. Huxford

Denise Jenkins

Todd Johnson

William J. Kabbert II

X. Daniel Kafcas

Thomas Kinsey

Bernard Koch

Joseph Koon

John Kupchun

Carolyn Kwasnoski

Daniel Kwasnoski

John David Lamanca

Charlotte Langan

William T. Langan

Rob Leonhardt

Gerald Lindstrom

David Ling

Kirk Lynn

Ed Mahoney

Bruce R. Malenke

Robert Marciniak

Manville Mayfield

Timothy McCoy

Timothy McIlvried

Charles McNamara

Paul McSherry

William I. Menarcheck

David Mirilovich

Greg Morford

Chad Morris

David Musick

Brian Nichols

Deborah Norden

Brian Nugent

Patricia Offley

Jeff O'Keefe

Paul Olson

Nimish Virendra Oza

William Peters

Jose Ponce

Santhirasegaran Ramasamy

Eugene Raykin

Anthony Rich

Paula Rubino-Rich

Kevin Rimmell

Dan Ruzich

Edward Ryan

Frank A. Santamaria

Lance Schelhaas

Rick Schell

Susan Schwenkler

Alan Sefcik

Richard Shillinger

Stephen Shortley

April Lynn Slater

Ernest Smathers

Andrew Solensky

John Spahr

Janet S. Stamos

Thomas Szczur

Richard Talbot

Jocelyn Taylor

Joel Thompson

Joan Lahart-Van Bortel

Bernie Varisco

Edwin Vega

Bernard R. Walters Jr.

Brian Weaver

Earl Weaver

Kathleen Weaver

Lee Weaver

Lindsay Weaver

Scott Weaver

Holmes Webb

David Wheeler

Donna A. White

Jack White

Edwin K. Wiles

Michael Williams

Dewitt Worrell

Steve W. Wyant

Curt Young

Michele Ziska

On the one-year anniversary, Brett Van Bortel reluctantly returned to the Hopewell Township hill where Joan died, looking skyward as a USAir plane passed overhead. The noise from USAir planes at the crash site and a nearby cemetery annoyed Brett. He felt like the planes were taunting him.

Feather expert Roxie Laybourne helped the NTSB explore the bird theory. "As long as you have man and birds flying," she says, "you have the potential for problems." On her office door, a Far Side cartoon shows Santa and his reindeer smashed on the nose of a jumbo jet.

Trisha Dedik grew frustrated as the investigation consumed her husband and interrupted their life together. But Tom Haueter had spent so much time at the crash site surrounded by the remains of 132 victims that he felt a solemn responsibility to keep working until he solved the mystery. He called the USAir 427 investigation "the biggest thing the board has ever done."

Mementos in the woods. Relatives honored their loved ones at the crash site. Lee Weaver was 62, president of Salem Furnace, a Pittsburgh designer of industrial furnaces.

Greg Phillips examines the Coke can-sized rudder valve from USAir Flight 427 that was the prime suspect in the crash. Despite hundreds of tests, Phillips could find no proof that the valve had malfunctioned. The two tubes that slide in and out of the valve are in the foreground.

Brian Bishop made for a perfect test subject: He was a rare pilot who experienced a rudder reversal and lived to tell about it. His Eastwind Airlines 737 had lurched to the right as it approached the Richmond airport. "I didn't think we were going to make it back."

Relatives were incensed that the monument USAir had built made no mention of the crash. To appease them, the airline added this granite bench, about 20 yards from the tombstones.

When the NTSB tested the fat guy theory in Seattle, an old USAir 737 was opened up like a patient on an operating table. In addition to the fat guy, they tested about a dozen theories, including the possibility that a rudder cable snapped in mid-flight. The 737 passed every test.

To get a break from the pressures of his job, Haueter flies in a vintage Stearman bi-plane that took him six years to restore. He named it E.V. in honor of his grandfather, who taught Haueter to fly when he was 15.

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