AIN Blog: G650 Crash Has Echoes of Titanic

 - April 21, 2011, 6:51 AM

Last week marked the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In her day, she was the biggest and best of her kind, incorporating the latest technology of the period. The story of the great ship’s unfortunate rendezvous with an iceberg in the North Atlantic while on her maiden voyage is well known, and I was reminded of it while was working on an article regarding a more recent tragedy: the crash of the Gulfstream G650 test aircraft on April 2

I noticed theanniversary of the Titanic’s sinking on a desk calendar that gives a historical look-back for each day. As I read the blurb for April 14, I thought of how technology, even with all the amazing advances over the last century, still can’t prevent every tragic accident.

Like the Titanic, Gulfstream’s G650 represents the latest technology for its particular form of transportation.

Like the Titanic, G650 S/N 6002 was helmed by highly experienced men (the accomplishments of the G650’s crewmembers from their online obituaries speak for themselves).

Like the Titanic, S/N 6002 was lost, long before its time, claiming lives in the process.

Beyond these similarities, however, it’s not yet possible to discern others. It might take many months before we know exactly what caused S/N 6002 to crash.

Regarding the great ship’s accident, we know the Titanic was functioning exactly as its builders had intended and was churning its way across the ocean when it struck an iceberg that was farther south than normally expected. The sinking was blamed on the collision, brought about by excessive speed in unexpected conditions, which in hindsight should have been taken into account. In other words, human error.

What we know about the G650 is that its highly experienced crew was testing the boundaries of the new aircraft under controlled conditions, using the most advanced aviation technology of today. Yet, like on that cold April night 99 years ago, some chain of unexpected events conspired to cause a disastrous outcome.

Several weeks before the G650 accident, I found myself in Savannah at the end of NBAA’s Schedulers and Dispatchers conference. With a few hours to spare before my evening flight home, I contacted Gulfstream to see if I might take advantage of the opportunity to make my first visit to its headquarters.

After visiting the brand-new G650 assembly facility, my tour guide and I walked onto the ramp, where we passed and briefly exchanged pleasantries with one of the flight crews headed for a test flight on a nearby G650. I even jokingly asked the pilot if I could come along.

Later, as the guide and I exited the cavernous Gulfstream customer service facility, we heard a roar and stopped to watch as the mighty twinjet knifed into the Georgia sky. We stood in the late afternoon sunshine and admired the aircraft until it shrank into a tiny dot.

The furthest thought from my mind on that day was that several weeks later four members of the Gulfstream flight-test team would be gone and there would be one fewer of these magnificent machines.