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Pilots, safety reps learn accident training at Grand Forks airport

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Airline pilots (L-R) Matt Rathbun, Danny Richardson, Dan Letellier and Joe Mahanar take measurements along a wing of a 727 jet in a crash simulation at the Grand Forks Airport this week. The pilots, members of the ALPA ( Air Line Pilots Association) participated in a Aircraft Accident Investigation Course that is held twice a year. Bob Fulton, right, is an instructor for the course. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
ALPA instructor Bob Fulton climbs up the stairs of a B727 airliner that is used for training purposes this week at the Grand Forks International Airport. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

Easternwings Airlines Flight 576 departed recently from Sioux Falls, S.D., much as it always has, bound for Grand Forks International Airport.

It didn’t make it -- not in one piece, anyway.

The plane is very real, but the flight is a work of fiction. Even the airline is fake, a dreamed-up carrier that only operates a route from Sioux Falls to Grand Forks.

The plane is a former FedEx cargo hauler, a Boeing 727 donated by the shipping company to the Grand Forks airport in 2007. It’s now used on a fairly regular basis for a variety of training exercises and “crashes” twice a year as part of the aircraft accident investigation course taught by the Air Line Pilots Association, International, the largest union of pilots in the world, and hosted by the airport authority in conjunction with UND Flight Operations. Flight 576 hit yet another unfortunate end Monday after it slid off the runway in a spell of nasty weather, just in time for a class of about 35 pilots and other airline industry members.

Dana Siewert, UND’s flight operations director of safety, said the partnership with ALPA and the airport has been ongoing since 2002.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind course,” Siewert said. “There’s lots accident investigation courses, but you’ll find the majority of those are theoretical courses, classroom courses. … In this course, you’re actually out at an airplane, touching parts and going inside the airplane.

Steve Demko, ALPA’s chief accident investigator, was overseeing this week’s course, which ended Thursday. Demko says the students who attend the multi-day session aren’t actually training to be investigators but are rather learning how to more effectively cooperate with them in the event of a crash. Though most of the students in any given course are usually pilots, Demko said the course sees a number of different airline employees with an interest in safety.

The course enjoys a broad reach. Demko says he’s seen pilots from as far away as South Africa and Finland take part in the exercises in Grand Forks.

Crash creation

On a blustery Wednesday afternoon, Demko pointed out the details needed to recast an old cargo plane as a passenger jet. He and other ALPA representatives get to the scene a few days early to set up a convincing crash site, a task they manage by scattering parts around the plane and installing gauges and other instruments in the cockpit.

“We have literal black boxes that we put in,” Demko said, standing before a row of airplane seats that have seen better days. “When the students come in, they can actually hold it, remove it and touch it.”

He and other course leaders also rig up an emergency slide, though the one they have is actually wrecked. Demko says the crash story always has some detail to explain why the bright yellow rubber slide is deflated, hanging like a tongue beneath an open hatch.

The Flight 576 facade goes deeper than hardware. With the help of UND, Demko says course leaders offer the students fuel samples to test for any contaminants that might have helped bring down the plane.

Similar courses are available elsewhere, but Demko says the one in Grand Forks is distinguished by its mix of hands-on work and theoretical learning. Aside from the plane, the course also includes classroom modules where students decipher mock cockpit recordings and witness interviews and connect documentation to actual conditions simulated by instructors.

The students returned to the plane Wednesday to work through activities in a structures and survival factors module, a set of activities that have them examine the damage done to the plane in the “crash” while scouting for missing parts.

Vanya Voskresensky, a recent UND aviation graduate now working in the safety department of a major airline, huddled against the wind as he sat on the rear steps of the eternally ill-fated Flight 576, holding the end of a long measuring tape pulled by a classmate along an imitation wreckage path. Voskresensky described his job as a “forward-looking” role and said he typically uses data to avoid real-life versions of the scene in Grand Forks. Still, he said the proactive approach is only one part of airline safety. For him, the course presents an opportunity for a safe setting to explore reactive methods he describes as a more “traditional” way to prevent crashes.

Seeing how to reverse-engineer a crash helps to make sure it never happens in the first place, Voskresensky said.

Though he’d heard of other courses promising to impart that same experience, he said the offering at UND’s flight operations was a better fit for his role as an analyst.

He had a quick summary of the course experience.

“This is intense,” he said. He’d considered other courses, but had found them to be technical to the point of focusing on data-points such as the tensile strength of metals. He said the course in Grand Forks was a little more dramatic.

“This is what you see in the movie ‘Sully,’ this is what you see on TV with all the documenting -- this is hands-on with all the things that are happening at a crash.”

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers county, health and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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