Horror plane crash saw ‘longest investigation ever’ as rudder fault killed 132

On this day 28 years ago (September 8, 1994) USAir Flight 427 stalled in mid-air and slammed into the ground in a suburban area, killing all 132 people onboard.

Their bodies were so badly fragmented that the crash site was declared a biohazard and 2,000 body bags were required.

Flight 427 was arriving into Pittsburgh International Airport when the Boeing 737's rudder malfunctioned, meaning it steered in the wrong direction and eventually stalled.

READ MORE: Pilot screamed 'what the f***' as plane engine exploded in crash that killed all onboard

The plane crashing in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania – just 28 seconds after the initial turbulence – sparked the longest investigation in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

That investigation led to changes in aviation that have been credited for saving countless lives since.

"I can't think of one accident that had more impact on the NTSB, on the aviation industry, and more importantly, on how families of all disasters are treated worldwide than the Pittsburgh accident," said Jim Hall, then-chairman of the NTSB.

"Nothing can replace those who were lost in that accident.

"But hopefully, their loved ones can look back at that tragedy and know, as a result of that event, possibly hundreds or thousands of lives may have been saved over the lifetime of that airplane, which is still the world's most popular aircraft."

The NTSB concluded in March 1999 that the accident's "probable cause" was rudder issues caused by "a jam of the main rudder power control unit servo valve secondary slide".

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) disagreed on the technicalities on the NTSB report and laid more blame with the pilots.

However, it changed its mind after a special task force from the Engineering Test and Evaluation Board found 46 potential failures and jams in the Boeing 737's rudder system.

The FAA later ordered Boeing to redesign and reinstall rudders for all 737s, as well as introducing backup rudder control and training for pilots on how to deal with rudder malfunctions.

Hall said: "Since the USAir 427 accident, the FAA has worked with Boeing, the NTSB and industry to make the 737 rudder system safer.

"It started out with Boeing essentially denying for three years that a mechanical malfunction on the world's most popular jetliner could occur to what essentially was an admission by Boeing and, more importantly, a billion-dollar correction of that flaw."

The incident also changed how families of aviation disaster victims are treated after the Flight 427 families were herded into an airport lounge, only told what had happened six hours after the fact and denied access to counsellors.

USAir's handling of the families was so awful that then-President Bill Clinton issued an executive order and Congress passed the Disaster Family Assistance Act in 1996.

The new law now means the NTSB is in charge of helping families.


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