When US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese, lost engine power and crashed into the Hudson River without any deaths or serious injuries in January 2009, attention naturally was focused on the heroics of the captain and crew who averted a major catastrophe.
But immediately after this “Miracle on the Hudson” occurred, another important development was quietly taking place behind-the-scenes as Robert Benzon of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and his team of aviation safety experts began the investigation to determine exactly what caused the crash, and how to prevent it from happening again.
As he has done many times throughout 25 years as an investigator in charge, Benzon set up a command center, and with his colleagues, interviewed the pilots, cabin crew, air traffic controllers and passengers to gather information. The team recovered the black box flight recorders, assessed the engine damage, and met with the manufacturers of the airplane and its engines, as well as other aviation industry engineers and specialists, to recreate and analyze the accident.
“Bob is the calm in the midst of a storm. He’s steady, reliable and the rock,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “In accident investigations, that’s exactly what you need. He’s willing to take a position that might be tough, but he is also humble and respectful of other people. It’s a combination of personal traits and characteristics and a hard work ethic that makes him successful.”
As a lead NTSB accident investigator, Benzon has headed numerous high-profile cases like US Airways Flight 1549 and is considered among the best at the safety board. More than 80 percent of his team’s recommendations have been adopted, helping avert countless crashes and deaths of airline passengers.
“I’m trying to put myself out of business,” said Benzon, who has also worked on investigations in Afghanistan, Scotland, Borneo and China.
Benzon’s lengthy investigation of Flight 1549 will yield more than 20 recommendations to improve safety and protect airline passengers in the future.
“The recommendations resulting from the Hudson River investigation are a great opportunity for us to make sure that future aircraft are designed correctly for this type of event, particularly to make sure our planes are strong enough and properly equipped for water landings, if necessary,” said Benzon.
Benzon started his career as an Air Force pilot, flying combat missions in Vietnam. He joined the NTSB in 1984 as an air safety investigator in the Chicago field office, where he served as investigator in charge of 65 regional investigations before moving to the Board’s Washington headquarters where he has handled more than 30 major inquiries.
One of his notable investigations involved American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City, just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More than 250 people were killed in the crash.
“After that devastating tragedy, we found out a few things that were unknown to the industry. The pilot was reacting improperly to some mild turbulence and had operated the rudder improperly—it was worked too hard, stressed the aircraft and caused it to crash,” said Benzon. “It was unknown at that time that you can’t simply move the rudder back and forth at those speeds without severely damaging the airplane. This was more than a small revelation to many experienced airline pilots.”
Benzon and his team made specific recommendations that have been adopted by the industry to change the design of the rudder system of the aircraft and to change the training program for pilots of that type of aircraft.
Another major investigation resulted from the 1996 TWA 800 crash in the Atlantic Ocean, which killed 230 people. “We found that the oxygen in the fuel tank can become dangerous if a spark occurs, and that’s exactly what brought down that flight,” said Benzon. “If you replace the air with another gas that doesn’t burn, like nitrogen, the chances of an explosion are virtually nil.”
It took Benzon and the Safety Board a decade of pushing industry to make the necessary changes, which he said will “save a lot of lives.”
Benzon has also advocated for decades to get more data points for analysis from recovered flight recorder black boxes. “They used to only tell us six or seven things, but now we have upwards of 1,000 pieces of data, which help us pinpoint exactly what went wrong and make specific recommendations, resulting in safer flying around the world.”
Thomas Haueter, who has worked with Benzon since 1986, said his colleague basically wrote NTSB’s major investigation manual, has been a key trainer for other investigators and has been “dynamic in thinking outside the box and creating new approaches to solving problems.”
“There are so many incredibly detailed investigations he’s been a part of over his tenure and there is just one accomplishment after another,” said Haueter.
Benzon describes his job as “extremely satisfying.”
“It’s a way of giving back—air travel is something that affects us all. I get a good feeling after every one of these investigations is over. It’s service to the country,” he said.