Agatha Christie mystery for aero/astro engineers


After every plane crash, an accident investigation team ultimately helps to improve safety standards for future fliers.

Every January for the past four years, Brian Nield (S.B. 1978), manager of aerodynamics engineering and product development at Boeing, has assembled a group of hard-working students to spend three days investigating the cause of a fictitious accident.

In the scenario Nield presents each year, an airplane roughly the size of a 737 carrying 10 people crashes off the shore of Bermuda while en route to the United States. Each day, bits of the mystery unfold for students, said Nield.

On the first day of the three-day/nine-to-five course, students are given radar returns, weather and transmissions from the day of the crash. That night, they try to piece together what might have happened.

The next day, more information is revealed. Students are even given the chance to read the transcript of the cockpit recording. Each of the clues is specifically designed to unravel another part of the mystery. Each day, the students make presentations of their findings, so they can benefit from one another's theories.

Students also study real-life crashes like the 1999 crash of EgyptAir 990 off the coast of Nantucket. That crash was also in deep water and used radar technology. With real-life examples, it can be a little tricky, said Nield. "You always want to be sensitive to the fact that crashes do have fatalities," he said.

The importance of the accident investigation team cannot be stressed enough. "They are one of the reasons planes are so safe," said Nield.

For the students, the opportunity can be an eye-opener. "I have certainly had students ask me how they can get into the field," said Nield.

After reviewing the scenarios each student presents, the class sees a "video" of the crash generated by Nield. The video explains the true cause; students can compare their answers to it.

The students get really into the project, he said. Some work until the wee hours of morning coming up with scenarios to present to the class. "It is amazing how creative some of them can be," said Nield.

Since the scenario is the same from year to year, participants are sworn to secrecy so as to not spoil the fun for future students.

"It's like Agatha Christie for engineers," Nield said. "It can be a lot of fun."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Aeronautical and astronautical engineering

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