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The Plane Truth; Life can be tough for local crash investigator

Local News - Saturday, July 21, 2007 @ 07:00

When plane crash sleuth Peter Rowntree landed his unique occupation a decade ago, he knew patience would be a key factor.

Now a regional senior technical investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, the Barrie resident's indoctrination into crash investigation came in 1998 with the ill-fated Swissair flight 111.

"I knew it was a chance of a lifetime, but it was tough," the 42-year-old Pembroke native said at his west-end home. "It was a lot to process. I had nightmares for months. I couldn't eat meat.

"I've got images in my head that you wouldn't want in your head."

Now, he has to be prepared to run out the door at a moment's notice. "That's par for the course, and you have to take it in stride, because that's part of what we do. My family is used to it," said Rowntree, who moved to Barrie with his wife five years ago.

"They know I could be gone at the ring of the phone," said Rowntree, who has two daughters. "And we never know how long."

A graduate of Canadore College's aviation maintenance technician program, Rowntree began his career in 1987 as a maintenance engineer, a job he kept until 1997 when the TSB hired him.

The TSB - whose mandate is to improve transportation safety - offers employees numerous courses, from witness interviewing and media relations to a myriad of technical information.

Rowntree has worked a number of high-profile scenes that had polar outcomes, including the Air France crash at Pearson International where everyone walked away, to Swissair, where all 229 people onboard perished off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Just 10 months into his TSB tenure, he volunteered for the Swissair case, which kept him away from his wife for the better part of two years.

Swissair was Rowntree's toughest case to crack and to work. The scale and the duration took their toll on him, including helping with the sea recovery of human remains and mangled wreckage.

"The whole situation was horrific for the families and the people working it," he said, adding a critical incident stress management team was brought to the scene to help investigators.

Rowntree leaves his work at the office.

"I usually don't talk about work when I come home," he said. "You have to detach yourself - some guys call it putting on your hat. If you have an emotional attachment, it makes the job a lot more difficult."

The job comes with hardships.

"The hardest part is dealing with the next-of-kin," he said. "Whenever you're dealing directly with families of the people who died, they're looking to you for answers.

"Initial contact can be difficult because they're in a state of emotional shock and the investigative process can take months, or, with Swissair, years," he added.

But investigators don't always have answers immediately, so they do their best to present the facts in a compassionate manner.

"In the end, it's always satisfying," Rowntree said. "Even if you don't find the answer, the golden BB, with every incident you're satisfied you've done the best you can and left no stone unturned. If there's still no answer, you know you've tried.

"But we never come down with one single cause," he added. "It's always multiple causes. It's like dominoes - there's not one thing that sinks you. It's a sequence of events."

Cases vary widely. With Air France, investigators thought they'd be dealing with massive casualties after seeing news footage.

"Air France was very close to being a Swissair," he said. "It was very fortunate that no one was killed. It was a miracle that people literally walked away."

There has been a trio of small-aircraft crash locally in recent weeks, but Rowntree said there's nothing dangerous about such tiny planes.

"It's just a coincidence," he said. "The summer months are busy months for the TSB. With the summer comes good weather, which brings out the planes."

Upon arrival, Rowntree surveys the scene and begins formulating a hypothesis. Then he searches for facts, whittling down the number of possibilities that may have led to the mishap, often revolving around the interplay between man, machine and environment.

"You have to avoid tunnel vision and look at the entire picture," said Rowntree, adding his biggest asset when he arrives at a crash scene is often gut instinct.

"I want to look at the aircraft - I'm a technical guy," he said. "Is it all there? Do we have the engine? Propellers? If they're not there, they're somewhere, so you have to widen your search area.

"It's a challenge, and every single time it's different," he added. "If you think of all the planes in the world ... we are constantly learning, because aviation is constantly changing."

Rowntree on the case...

Aug. 2, 2005 - Miraculously, all 297 passengers and 12 crew aboard Air France Flight 358 escape death after their Airbus 340 skids off the runway at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, plunging into a ravine and bursting into flames. Dense smoke soon filled the cabin as passengers raced for the emergency exits. Cause: Investigation ongoing.

Oct. 14, 2004 - MK Airlines Boeing 747 cargo plane crashes in Halifax, killing seven crew members. The tail had snapped off after twice hitting the runway during takeoff before hitting a dirt mound, seconds before crashing into the woods. The aircraft's fuselage and wings cut a wide, V-shaped swath through the thick woods before coming to rest in scorched pieces about a kilometre away. Cause: Investigation ongoing.

Jan. 17, 2004 - Georgian Express Flight 126, owned by a Barrie group, crashes into Lake Erie, off Pelee Island, killing all 10 people aboard the Cessna 208-B Caravan. The plane was en route to Windsor, carrying a group returning from a hunting trip. Seconds after takeoff, the aircraft listed, banked its left wing and plunged nose-down into the frigid lake, killing eight hunters, the pilot, his girlfriend and several dogs on impact. Cause: Overweight and ice buildup.

Sept. 2, 1998 - Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 jetliner, crashes into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people on board. The New York-to-Geneva flight was in trouble minutes after takeoff. Voice recorders indicate the pilots smelled an odour in the cockpit, and suspected the air-conditioning system. Then they saw smoke. The pilot diverted to open water near Peggy's Cove to dump fuel, before attempting an emergency landing at Halifax. Then the plane lost electrical power and plunged into the ocean. Cause: Electrical fire, linked to an in-flight entertainment system.

Jan. 21, 2003 - Four Ministry of Natural Resources workers are killed when their Eurocopter AS 350 B2 helicopter crashes in a remote area, about 80 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie. They were conducting an aerial moose survey when they sent out a distress signal indicating mechanical problems. Cause: A hydraulic pump drive belt failed, causing the pilot to lose control.
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