Ensuring air safety

All Americans will feel sympathy for the families of victims of the Air Florida plane crash in Washington even as they will be moved by the acts of eloquent heroism that surrounded that tragic event. This has been a season to test character as winter has struck especially severely in many parts of the country. The accident in the nation's capital is but the latest occurrence in which strangers and friends alike have rallied to save life, to preserve crops, or to overcome other misfortune. There can be no hiding the pain and grief at such times. But it is not the grotesque details of disaster that should preoccupy our thoughts but the lessons to be learned from it.

Too little is known about the crash of the Boeing 737 at this writing to draw any conclusions as to the causes. But official and public attention already is properly focused on the inadequacies of the small National Airport. Its proximity to Washington makes it extremely convenient for those travelling to the capital. Yet the shortness of the runways, the difficult flight paths over densely populated areas, and the general congestion have long been the concern of pilots flying to and from National. Down through the years there have been many plans to transfer more of its operations to Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Airports.

There is bound to be renewed call now for putting such plans into operation, and indeed this would appear to be the sensible thing to do. National Airport today handles more than l5 million passengers a year, whereas it was designed to handle 6 million.

It should be noted in fairness, however, that National has an excellent record of air safety -- perhaps precisely because of the airport's inherent problems and the special effort made to avoid them. This is the airport's first fatal crash since 1949 involving a commercial plane. On two other occasions, pilots of commerical jetliners aborted takeoffs and slid into the mud short of the Potomac River. Air Florida, it should be added, has had a flawless record ever since its founding ten years ago.

This is no reason for not making intelligent changes, however. Despite the good -- one might even say superb -- national record of air safety in general, it should not have to take a grim accident to spur improvements of airport facilities. Even one accident from National Airport (or any airport) is too many, and the Federal Aviation Administration that owns and operates it should not allow any cutting of safety corners, however much congressional lawmakers and others would resist riding out to Dulles more often. When air accidents can be attributed to poor physical facilities and conditions, it is criminal not to do something about them.

These are issues which now must be thoroughly scrutinized by Congress as well as by federal aviation officials. Meantime the American people cannot but be impressed once again by the individual selflessness which comes to the fore at times of challenge. Take, for example, the quick response of Martin Skutnik, a bystander at the scene of the crash who pulled off his boots, threw off his overcoat, jumped into the icy Potomac, and swam yards to save a flight attendant who had dropped from a helicopter rescue rope. Later, when asked how he felt in the water, the young man replied: ''Hot. I really didn't feel cold until I got into the ambulance.''

There are many other heroes whose names may or may not be known. But their deeds all serve to remind us that it is not the grimness of disaster which leaves the sharpest imprint on human history but the spirit of pluck and determination displayed in surmounting it.

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