Mission aviation safety

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It:   A plane crash last month near Deer Park, Washington that killed two Moody Bible Institute Aviation students as well as their flight instructor.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Their small plane broke up mid-flight and crashed in a field.

This is the first fatal accident in 50 years for Moody Aviation. That’s a flight school that since its founding in 19 46 has trained almost half of all missionary pilots.

EICHER: The NTSB—the National Transportation Safety Board—is looking into this. But a Christian aviation organization is also combing the evidence. Mission Safety International hopes it can prevent other accidents on the mission field.

WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler has our story.

KXLY NEWS REPORT: Continuing coverage tonight on a deadly plane crash near Deer Park last week…

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: According to last week’s NTSB preliminary report on the accident, July 13th was a beautiful day for flying in Spokane, Washington: Clear conditions, 10-mile visibility, and slight wind gusts of four miles an hour.

Flight instructor Diego Senn and students Austen Lee and Andrew Trouten headed out at 10 a.m. for a short introductory training flight. When the plane didn’t return on time, another instructor attempted to contact the crew by radio, then cell phone. Spokane Air-Traffic Control confirmed the plane went missing about 25 minutes into its flight.

Eye-witnesses told the NTSB the plane went into a steep dive—adding they saw the wings come off the plane before it struck a farm-field about 20 miles northwest of the Moody training facility.

The Cessna 172-R Skyhawk was relatively new, built in 2000. The four-seat, single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft has been the backbone of missionary aviation since the 1950’s. Cessna has produced more than 40,000 of these planes, and only a handful have ever broken up mid-flight.

As most small aircraft don’t have flight data recorders, the National Transportation Safety Board says it may never known with certainty what happened and it may take more than a year before it releases a full report, but NTSB investigators aren’t the only ones analyzing the crash.

EGELER: Investigating an accident is a lot like investigating anything else… but it’s taking pieces of a puzzle, pieces of evidence and putting it together…

Jon Egeler is president of Mission Safety International, he’s a Moody Aviation graduate and spoke with me from the Oshkosh Air Show.

EGELER: You first try to establish what happened in the accident itself, and then you work backwards and figure out why it happened…

Mission Safety International, or MSI, was founded in 1983 to reduce the number of missionary aviation accidents. It works anywhere missionary pilots fly: And in many countries, it’s the only organization available to investigate an accident.

EGELER: As we determine what happened, and why it happened, those lessons are recorded and what we would do is we publish reports of these accidents and then distribute them to the missions so that they are aware of them.

But determining what happened during an accident is not MSI’s primary role. The organization is more involved in trying to prevent accidents—so its investigations lead to safety seminars all over the world. Again, Jon Egeler.

EGLER: We’ll often use an accident as a case study. And so each time an accident occurs, it helps to increase the collective knowledge of the whole community and we share those lessons so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of others.

It’s this crucial work that has greatly reduced the number of accidents across missionary aviation during the last 30 years. As missionary pilots and their sending agencies have embraced MSI’s efforts, accidents become teachable moments that prevent future crashes.

SMOLL: Because we all come from missionary aviation, we all have a lot of common core elements that can drive…

Ken Smoll is founder of Blue Tide Aero, and trains missionary aviators. He graduated from the Moody Aviation program in 1993 as a pilot mechanic. He stayed on after graduation and taught for two years, before going to Kenya with Samaritan’s Purse. From 2009 to 2017 he served with the Spokane Turbine Center, which shares an airstrip and hanger with the Moody training program.

SMOLL: Most aircraft accidents are the result of a long series of events …it’s possible that the first seven are common to most mission aviation organizations. Well, if you can interrupt that process anywhere along the way, you can often prevent the accident…

The coming months will be difficult for the Moody Aviation training program. First, grieving the loss of the students and instructor, two of whom left behind pregnant wives. On top of that, the rigorous and sometimes intrusive process as investigators dig deep into the ministry—looking for preventable root causes. And finally, the ensuing challenge of changing organizational culture and implementing new procedures.

But Ken Smoll, who lost a close friend while flying in Kenya, says the tragedy will make the remaining students better missionary pilots and mechanics.

SMOLL: When we get in airplanes, when we work on airplanes, the thoughts of this accident are always pretty close to our minds, and it stops us. We recheck a fitting, we go back to the manual and read the instructions one more time just to make sure we didn’t do something wrong. The people that we knew from this accident recently come back to mind and you just stop for a minute because you think about them and their families and their kids and you know, that there’s a lot at risk every time we take to the air.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/KXLY.com, Spokane)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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