Veteran Bend pilot offers special safety perspective

Art Samson helped improve flight crew communications

Bend aviation expert weighs in

BEND, Ore. - Days after a Malaysian Airlines flight to Beijing vanished off the coast of the South China Sea, the search for wreckage -- and answers -- is being followed closely by one Bend resident. a long-time airline pilot and instructor who helped U.S. air carriers improve safety after a deadly string of crashes decades ago.

Art Samson, who moved to Bend several years ago, has been in the aviation industry for 35 years, and after time in the Navy spent many of those years with Delta Airlines, with an emphasis on safety and improving communication among members of jetliners' flight crews.

During his time with Delta he helped create a "crew resource management" protocol used by many airlines today to improve those vital communication skills among flight crew members.

But Samson tells NewsChannel 21 that while major U.S. carriers have had a promising decade -- over 12 years without a fatal crash -- not all foreign carriers have fully embraced those potentially life-saving training efforts, and that can lead to or help fuel disastrous consequences.

After two crashes involving U.S. carriers that killed over 600 people in the 1970s, it was a 1978 jetliner crash in east Portland -- one where the plane literally ran out of fuel -- that galvanized the industry to greater flight crew communication training.

That captain could not hear -- it didn't register -- when the flight engineer warned the fuel was running out. Minutes later, the engines quit -- but miraculously, the plane drifted down into an open field east of the airport.

Still, 11 passengers perished, and the FAA mandated that U.S. airlines conduct special crew training in communication and leadership, including the ability of junior crew members to question a captain's actions.

As for the Malaysian Airlines incident, Samson said, "Something happened to that airplane that possibly someone on the team, if they could have had the way of passing it up the chain of command, it might have had a different outcome."

Samson also said it's too early to tell what might have happened, but whatever it was, it apparently happened very fast.

"The only conclusion that is viable at this point, is that there was some kind of catastrophic failure that occurred unexpectedly," Samson said.

He speculates there could have been an explosion generated by something already wrong with the plane. If that's the case, there's only one way of finding out.

"I do believe in this circumstance that it sounds as though they have a pretty good general idea of where wreckage and debris is," Samson said. "From that, they're likely to find the black boxes (flight data recorders)."

Samson doesn't believe this is a trend, and as he does in a book he wrote two years ago, "The Captain's Airline: Pushing Back from the Brink," he says you shouldn't be afraid to fly. 

As an example, he compares the lack of U.S. airline fatal crashes since one in New York shortly after 9/11/2001 to the reported 100,000 deaths caused each year by medical errors.

"Oddly, when something like this occurs, it gets a lot of attention -- and we forget that there are so many other venues in which there's much more danger," Samson said.

Even though there's uncertainty now surrounding the flight's disappearance, Samson is certain they'll get to the bottom of it.  

"For a long time, I've seen many incidents with similarities to this, but there's always an unknown in there that takes a while to find out about," Samson said. "Though I feel confident they'll find out what happened to this airplane."

 Speaking in general, Samson said that despite many technical or mechanical issues, "We're still not out of the age where almost always, the (accident) findings will be pilot error. That's accurate to some extent, but not accurate if you delve deeper into what led them to make those errors."

And it's not just airlines or aviation: Samson says some of the same communication and relationship skills and training can help all kinds of industries -- and even other key relations, such as marriages. On his Website's blog, he says tragedies often follow "a cascade of small errors," not easily discernible large ones.

While "one step in the wrong direction" can cause big trouble, he writes, "we can mitigate those odds and turn them in our favor simply by focusing on the team, instead of the chain of command."

To learn more about Samson, his views and his book, visit

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