Commentary March 2004: Jerome “Jerry” Lederer 1903-2004

 - March 16, 2007, 9:13 AM

Aviation safety pioneer Jerome “Jerry” Lederer died February 6 at the age of 101 in Laguna Hills, Calif., of congestive heart failure. His lifelong dedication to preventing accidents made travel safer for everyone who flies aboard civilian aircraft.

Lederer’s devotion to safety dates back to the very beginning of commercial aviation when, in 1926 and 1927, he worked as the sole aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Air Mail Service. The usual cause of death for the many Air Mail pilots who lost their lives in the early 1920s was the fire that followed the crash. Lederer oversaw the construction of a concrete ramp leading to a concrete wall and the initiation of an aircraft crash testing facility. Unoccupied de Havilland DH.4 mailplanes were released down the ramp, under full power, and allowed to slam into the concrete wall.

Slow-motion images of the impact showed that fuel from the ruptured tanks, mounted up front in the fuselage, would ignite on the exhaust manifold and start a fire. Lederer redesigned aircraft systems to avoid such vulnerability.

In May 1927, Lederer inspected Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan Monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, and was not impressed with the Lone Eagle’s chances: “I did not have too much hope that he would make it,” he said. “I just went out because I was a friend of his, and I wanted to see the airplane, to look the situation over.” (He was glad, 33 hours later as Lindbergh alighted in Paris, to be proved wrong.)

Later that same year Lederer became a consultant to airplane manufacturers and an insurer, and in 1929 he was employed as chief engineer for the company that became Aero Insurance Underwriters. Until 1940 he evaluated aviation risks, reduced losses through safety audits and educational programs and disseminated aviation safety information through newsletters.

From 1940 to 1942, Lederer served as director of the Civil Aeronautics Board Safety Bureau, responsible for safety rulemaking and accident investigation and predecessor of the National Transportation Safety Board. Lederer recalled one of his primary goals of that time: “I decided it would be a good idea to have flight data recorders in all transport airplanes and to require them by regulation. The industry did not like the idea of having another device to maintain; having to change the recording paper, which might be difficult in the rain; and having to choose the best place to put the recorder–in the tail, maintenance would be difficult–to keep it from being destroyed in a crash. The Air Line Pilots Association protested, saying this was nothing but a mechanical spy that would tell lies about the pilot. I put through the regulation anyway. A few weeks later, we proved with the flight data recorder that a pilot had been flying at the correct altitude, and that persuaded ALPA that it should go along with the flight data recorder.”

Lederer organized the Flight Safety Foundation in the course of discussions among airline-safety specialists after five crewmembers were killed (and one injured) in a July 1946 accident in which fire erupted in the fuselage insulation of a Lockheed Constellation near Reading, Pa. His legacy through the FSF is the dissemination of safety information that transcends competing commercial interests and national borders.

In 1948 Lederer orchestrated the first civilian aircraft accident investigation course conducted by a private organization.

A couple of years later he concurrently became director of the Cornell-Guggenheim Aviation Safety Center, which assumed official oversight of Aviation Crash Injury Research, an organization that aimed to improve accident survivability in airplanes and helicopters. During his tenure at the FSF, Lederer was also a member of President Eisenhower’s Aviation Facilities Investigation Group, which organized the agency that became the FAA and modernized ATC. Lederer also served on the ICAO panel that sought to integrate jet aircraft into the world’s air transportation system.

Lederer received more than 100 awards for his professional achievements. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, two daughters and two granddaughters.