I NEARLY MISSED this super little book, among dozens of imposing hardbacks from more established publishers. But, having started a quick, skimming perusal, I was unable to put it down, and finished the work at a single sitting, transfixed
I NEARLY MISSED this super little book, among dozens of imposing hardbacks from more established publishers. But, having started a quick, skimming perusal, I was unable to put it down, and finished the work at a single sitting, transfixed.
Charlie Collar’s lifelong passions were flying and establishing the true causes of air accidents. Now in his late nineties, he wrote this autobiography in 1970, upon retiring from the then-new U.S. National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) after a remarkable 27-year career. Probably because of the book’s controversial tone, nobody would publish it.
26 years later his granddaughter, April Kirkendoll, discovered the discarded manuscript and set to persuading Collar to edit and update it. The result is a highly readable book, as relevant now as when first written
Collar started his career in 1920, attempting to teach himself to fly in a tail-heavy modified Curtiss Model F flying boat. Not surprisingly; ‘when I took off it headed for the moon, and I overdid the recovery by levelling off about ten feet under water.’ This of course became the subject of his first accident investigation.
In 1923 he joined the Navy. With them he flew flying boats and amphibians on prohibition-era anti-smuggling patrols. Here he first glimpsed corruption among government employees, finding himself bamboozled into aiding the smugglers for the fiscal benefit of his superior. Upon leaving the military, he briefly became a test pilot; thereafter he had numerous hair-raising (and often amusing) experiences. During this phase of his life he was reported killed to his long-suffering wife no fewer than four times. She became used to it.
Having learned much about the booze smugglers and their income, Collar decided to cash in on the large sums of money involved. Reckoning he was ‘not smart enough to be crooked,’ he did so by quite legally ferrying the liquor buyers between Florida and the Bahamas. That small operation grew, through adventure and misadventure, into Bahamas Airways.
In 1942, aged 41, he changed careers to become Air Safety Investigator for the Civil Aeronautics Board. He reckoned ‘since I had done as much unsafe flying as anybody, I might make Investigator material.’
Among many lively tales, he recounts one investigation deep in the Amazon jungle. After a three-month marathon involving, by turns, immense bravery, grim fortitude, utter determination and a powerful sense of humour, Collar unearthed the most probable cause of the Stratocruiser accident, in which fifty people were killed. The crash had been precipitated by loss of a hollow steel propeller blade. The resulting gross imbalance ripped the big ‘corncob’ engine out of its nacelle, to hit the wing and cause airframe failure.
Unfortunately the motor was lost in the vastness of the jungle, and Collar’s finding was suppressed. Many more accidents occurred before those propellers were finally outlawed.
Despite Collar’s crusade, many of the hazards existing in his time remain in aviation today. Some quotes may give you a feel for his passion: ‘By 1970 the Bureau of Safety had no more personnel or funds than when first organised, although aviation and the CAA had expanded tenfold.’ ‘The NTSB was supposed to be responsible only to Congress, but… the Department of Transportation held the purse strings, and that’s a pretty good way to control anything,’ and ‘Government aviation organisations are so over-managed that they have managers to manage the managers in a wild profusion of inefficiency.’ Much of the problem was (and still is) the conflict between the FAA’s opposing roles of supporting and encouraging aviation but also policing it.
Do not make the mistake of concluding this book is merely the diatribe of an embittered old man. Charlie Collar has clearly done mor