Aviation Safety

On March 31, 1931, seven passengers boarded a plane to Kansas City for a flight to Los Angeles. The weather was not good, but the flight began, knowing that the weather might be a problem.

Commercial aviation was in its infancy at the time. The dominant plane in use at the time was one produced by Anthony Fokker. It had been used by Germany in World War I. Fokker was obsessed with the cheapest materials and production. He invested very little in research and development or quality control.

The Fokker F-10 A used in the flight carrying the seven men was made from wood. It had been inspected prior to the flight and the mechanic noted that the plywood panels on the wings were loose. He refused to sign off on the plane’s airworthiness.

Even with questionable weather and a plane with clear deficiencies, the flight went off as scheduled. Visibility was non-existent and pilots were following a railroad track. When they approached higher ground, the plane would have no navigational aids as clouds hid the railroad track below. The icing of instruments was also a problem. The plane began spiraling into a deep dive and crashed into a pasture.

The crash would have drawn little attention except that one of the passengers was Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He was 41 years old when he died.

Rockne’s death became the catalyst for improving airline safety. It was said at the time that even the President’s death could have generated a greater call for aviation safety. Fokker’s planes all but disappeared. Aircraft manufacturers began to focus on safety over cost. The federal government became more involved and created what would become the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA).

Beginnings are often triggered by tragedies. While Knute Rockne is well known for his success as a football coach, his greatest contribution to our society may have resulted from his tragic death.

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“It takes less time to do a thing right, than it does to explain why you did it wrong.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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