Independent air-safety expert keeps wary eye on airlines, FAA
Worthington, Ohio — John Galipault has a low tolerance for those who merely sit back and criticize when it comes to aviation safety. As president of the Aviation Safety Institute (ASI), a nonprofit research organization he founded in 1973 to identify and correct aviation hazards, he is constantly pressing for change.
In an interview in his small office, the former Ohio State University aviation instructor says that he has just dashed off a note to Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. In it he urged the senator to do what he can to repair or replace a faulty dewpoint measuring device that affects the accuracy of weather forecasts at the Clarksburg, W. Va., airport.
Mr. Galipault is the first to admit he gets only a few of the changes he seeks. But he claims that over the years the ASI has had a key role in correcting more than 870 hazards to safe flying.
In one such case the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed to raise the approach altitude from the northwest into New York's Kennedy Airport. In another, Galipault helped persuade the Pentagon to share geographical information about simulated combat maneuvers that occasionally cross into civilian airspace.
The ASI's working philosophy is that accidents are preventable. ``We're not in the watchdog business. . . . We'd rather do something than just sit and be a critic,'' he says.
Galipault's ammunition for change comes from some 50,000 anonymous hazard reports filed over the years on a toll-free phone line by pilots, mechanics, controllers, and passengers.
The ASI president says he sees little that is new in such reports: ``We've seen the same things again and again.''
For example, he cites a precedent of sorts for the recent crash of a Japan Air Lines (JAL) 747 jet now being attributed to a crack or some failure of the aft pressure bulkhead.
A similar failure occurred in the aft pressure bulkhead in an Air Canada DC-9 leaving Boston's Logan Airport a few years back, says the ASI president. That incident prompted a widespread check of the part in all DC-9s. A significant number of cracks were found and corrected.
``I think there needs to be some gesture that makes it clear that the  problem will get fixed,'' Galipault says.
The ASI, which operates on a shoestring budget of contributions and membership fees, shares some of what it learns in the hazard reports through a chatty, mimeographed newsletter that goes out twice a month. Accounts are usually well punctuated with Galipault's no-nonsense suggestions for improvement.
Galipault, who grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot and enjoys flying small planes, does not always follow the pack's assessment of a mishap. In the aftermath of the recent crash in Texas of a Delta Airlines L-1011 jumbo jet in wind-shear conditions, he urged installation of a successfully tested cockpit device. The device detects wind shear in early stages. Most aviation watchers recommended installing a ground-based Doppler radar.
``There's a lot of good technology available that's not being required,'' he says. Though admittedly not a popular idea, an industry tax break could serve as some incentive, he says.
As a never-quite-satisfied reformer, Galipault rarely hands out kudos. The FAA does get credit in recent ASI newsletters for putting new limits on carry-on baggage and raising standards for exit and aisle lighting. But he faults the FAA for allowing too many aircraft to fly in a system manned by too few controllers who are inadequately trained. ``The FAA keeps trying to do more with less,'' he declares.
Galipault has his critics. He has been accused of everything from being too quick to comment to the press, to being an ``ambulance chaser.''
Still, he feels it important to continue to push for close scrutiny in light of accidents such as Thursday's fire aboard a British Airtours Boeing 737 in Manchester, England, in which 54 people were reported killed.
Though only nipping at the heels of problems, Galipault says that he thinks the general level of safety awareness has improved over the last decade. Management of most airlines, but ``not all,'' is more enlightened than in years past, he says.
Management's attitude about safety can be all-important in his view. For instance, he cites the determination of officials of Northwest Airlines Inc. to avoid a repeat performance after one of its jets broke up in a storm over Florida in the 1960s. The airline hired and still employs a staff of meteorologists to plot and forecast areas of turbulence. Pilots are told they have the airline's full support if they elect not to penetrate such areas, Galipault says.
``If you have a tough-line management team that says, `You will not have accidents,' you will tend not to have them,'' says Galipault in a manner suggesting this point should be as clear to everyone as it is to him.