[ViewPoint] The tragic case of Birgenair Flight 301

Columns - View Point

February 27, 2012

On Februay 6, 1996, 176 passengers and 13 crew members boarded a plane in the Dominican Republic for an overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany. As the crew prepared the cabin for takeoff and weary passengers sat back in their seats to get some much-needed rest, the Boeing 757 left the gate. Just before takeoff, as the plane rolled down the runway at 11:42 p.m., the pilot noticed an anomoly with one of the air speed indicators, but chose not to abort the flight. It proved to be a fateful decision.

Approximately 10 minutes later, as the airliner climbed to 4,700 feet, the captain’s air speed indicator began transmitting conflicting information from that of the co-pilot’s, prompting the plane’s auto-pilot — which was receiving data from the same faulty piece of equipment — to determine that the plane was traveling too fast, gradually raising the nose to slow it down.

As multiple warnings sounded in the cockpit and the two pilot’s attempted to get a handle on their rapidly deteriorating situation, they took control of the plane, but within minutes the 757 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 189 people on board.

Why am I sharing this story with you now, 16 years after it made headlines around the globe? Because it speaks to the critical role pest management professionals play in protecting the public’s health and property on a daily basis, even in the most seemingly innocuous situations.

You see, the crash of Birgenair Flight 301 may have been averted if some simple IPM steps had been taken to protect the now-defunct airline’s planes from a pest invasion, the kinds of services provided by PMPs around the world every day.

As former National Transportation Safety Board Director Peter Goelz related in a recent New York Times Magazine article about the role of pitot tubes in airline crashes, “‘We had a Boeing 757 that had been on the ground in the Dominican Republic for a month,’ he said. “The investigation concluded that ‘during that time, one of the pitot probes got an insect nest built in it. Well, the crew took off and flew the plane right into the ocean.’”

The culprit? Although it’s impossible to prove conclusively since no pitot tubes were retrieved from the ocean floor following the crash, investigators speculate it may have been the work of a mud dauber wasp native to the Dominican Republic, a problem well known to pilots. According to a computerweekly.com article about the crash, “Mud daubers looking for nests choose ones which are more or less tubular; and when they make their nest the mud dries and hardens. A pitot tube is (a) perfect home for the wasp — especially as the 757 was lying idle at the airport for 25 days (since) its last flight — which was more than enough time for the wasp to build its nest in the uncovered pitot tubes.”

We’ll never know for certain whether a mud dauber is what brought down Flight 301, but if you have an opportunity it’s worth checking out the National Geographic Channel’s compelling retelling of this remarkable story in a show titled, “Air Crash Investigation: The Plane That Wouldn’t Talk.” It will give you a renewed appreciation for the important role pest management professionals play in protecting the public’s health regardless of the industry, whether it be aviation, food processing, restaurant/hospitality, health care, or the millions of families that benefit from the skill and dedication of thousands of pest control service professionals every day, technicians like yours that provide an essential public service, thereby ensuring that our loved ones return home safely every night, unlike the tragic victims of Birgenair Flight 301.


The author is Publisher of PCT magazine.