It doesn’t even look like a plane. The Mitsubishi MU-2 is in about a hundred pieces, spread over the floor of a warehouse. Fluorescent lights reflect off the white paint of one dented, jagged, sheet of metal, wearing a thin layer of mud. This is what a dozen washing machines would look like after fighting a wood chipper. It’s actually the wings.
The cabin is more complete. A seat hangs out, piles of wiring dangle from the aircraft walls. The detached cockpit lies a few yards away, propped up on a wooden horse. A windscreen wiper sits, limp, on the shattered glass.
Thomas Anthony picks his way through the pieces, holding a flashlight in his gloved hand. “It may give us lessons that could extend far beyond this one individual aircraft,” he says.
But Anthony’s not here to figure out what happened to the MU-2. The plane crashed in 2010 in Ohio, killing four people, including the pilot. Five years ago, it settled in at this warehouse, as part of University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program, which Anthony directs.
The destroyed corporate plane is one of 11 planes, helicopters, and military drones that Anthony and his fellow instructors use to teach 800 trainees every year, giving them hands-on experience with flying wrecks. Students include staff from airlines, manufacturers, insurers, or government and law enforcement—anyone who may need to figure out what caused a crash of an aircraft they are responsible for.
Investigators are detectives, piecing together clues. Without the data-logging black boxes standard on modern, larger aircraft, they must find the subtler signs. If the bulb of a warning light is broken, there’s a good chance it was on—when the filament inside gets hot it’s more likely to break on impact. Knowing which lights were on reveals more about what was happening as the plane went down.
Anthony will also look at the twisting of the aircraft body to see where energy originated, and where it went. A direct hit to the ground may seem obvious, but holes in cargo bays could point to explosives. Dented engine casings could indicate mechanical failure.
The approach is the same for studying downed airliners, says Gregory Feith, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. The critical thing is to teach investigators to build up a big picture, rather than zero in on one source of information, even a black box.
“It’s up to the investigator to take that data and try to put it into a sequence of events,” Feith says. Today’s commercial aircraft are so safe, it usually takes an array of interconnected issues to cause a crash. It’s not just ‘engine failure’. It’s engine failure in a thunderstorm, at night, with the pilot was trying to land at an unfamiliar airport, with a short runway, without full training on emergency procedures for that aircraft. “The bottom line is not so much the cause of the accident, although it’s important,” says Feith. “But how we’re going to prevent the accident from happening in the future.”
So Anthony will teach his students to look at everything, down to the odd patches of color that could be paint transfer from another aircraft, or even a building. If there’s a fire, he’ll make them look at whether smoke trails go straight up, meaning it probably started when the plane was stationary, or if they flow in the direction of travel, indicating the flames started mid-air.
The crash shunted the MU-2’s entire instrument panel and flight controls hard to the left. Anthony highlights the flap lever with his flashlight. It’s bent almost 90 degrees. “Because that’s been jammed in place, that’s probably where it was set at the time,” he says.
Adding in weather reports from the night of the crash and intel from nearby pilots, Anthony concludes the wings iced up. The plane stalled, and hit the ground nose first. It’s a lesson that could save lives in the future—and teach others to save even more.