Niki Lauda Has Probably Saved Your Life.
You don’t need to see the movie Rush to know why many people consider Niki Lauda to be one of motorsport’s greatest drivers. He is a man who has pushed certain death off to the side to become a champion. His famous 1976 crash at the Nurburgring literally put him through Hell; and his will to survive that crash is what defines Niki in the minds of racing fans worldwide.
In a sport such as Formula One, it’s easy to get cynical and say that such an elite hasn’t really done anything to truly benefit society. In Mr. Lauda’s case, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In addition to being a racing champion, Niki Lauda gained a reputation for being a force to be reckoned with in the business world. Not content with simply retiring from a legendary racing career, Lauda also started his first airline, LaudaAir, in 1985. His notorious fastidiousness was just as present in the airline business as it was in the racing scene. As a result, LaudaAir was one of Europe’s most highly-regarded luxury airliners. The acclaim from a technical perspective was no different—Niki Lauda ran his fleet exactly like you would expect Niki Lauda to run an airline. Not only was he a pilot for his own company, but LaudaAir had a near-perfect safety record.
Sadly, that record would be forever tarnished on May 26, 1991. On that day, LaudaAir Flight 004 took off from Bangkok en route to its destination of Vienna. Shortly thereafter, in a remote area of northern Thailand, the Boeing 767-3Z9ER fell from the sky, disintegrating into a fiery pile of wreckage that was strewn across a square mile of Thai jungle. None of the 224 passengers and crew had a hope of survival.
It should go without saying that the crash was an emotional sisyphus to Lauda. Even for a man with a well-earned reputation for being cold and unemotional, Niki literally had the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was his airline’s first plane crash; the first (and deadliest) crash of a Boeing 767 ever; and the deadliest aviation disaster to ever occur on Thai soil.
Yet Niki Lauda was not content with wallowing in self-pity. He immediately went to Thailand to help figure out what caused the tragedy. He also attended a funeral for 23 victims of the crash who were never identified.
The cause of the crash appeared to be simple, obvious, yet so inconceivable that few people believed it. When investigators found the left engine, they discovered that the thrust reverser was fully engaged. The thrust reverser on a Boeing 767 is essentially a giant piece of the rear engine cover that slides backwards to interrupt the flow of air over the wings. This significantly reduces the amount of lift on that side of the plane, slowing the plane down during landing. However, the reverser deployed while the plane was in flight. This reduction of lift had obvious consequences—it sent the plane into a nosedive, from which it apparently could not recover.
However, if this was the cause of the catastrophe, there were some serious implications on the line for the entire airline industry. If the engagement of the thrust reverser was due to a design flaw of the plane itself, it meant that every Boeing jet in service was a ticking time bomb. If it was due to improper maintenance or pilot error, this would have destroyed the reputation of both Lauda and his airline. To make matters even worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had concluded years earlier that a mid-air reverser deployment was a survivable incident. In other words, it was something that the pilots could have, and should have been able to recover from.
Yet Niki Lauda was not convinced with the findings of investigators. He was convinced that there was nothing that the flight crew could have, or should have done differently during that fateful flight. For a man as meticulous as Niki to be dead certain that the pilots had done everything correctly, that speaks volumes.
Indeed, Niki Lauda would take full advantage of his demanding nature, and went to Boeing headquarters in Seattle to prove that there was something seriously wrong with the 767. He demanded to use their flight simulator to test if he could recover the plane under the same conditions. He tried 15 times, and failed every single time.
It was determined that, while the 767 had been able to recover from a reversal deployment at 10,000 feet, no tests had ever been done at higher altitudes. At the same speed and altitude as LaudaAir Flight 004, the event was unsurvivable. There was nothing the pilots could have possibly done to stop the plane from free-falling and disintegrating in the sky. But Niki Lauda had to be Niki Lauda before Boeing would issue a safety warning for its jets. He demanded that, if he could not take one of Boeing’s 767s to 21,000 feet with two test pilots and deploy the thrust reverser, that Boeing had to issue a statement.
Whatever he injured in his infamous Nurburgring crash, it certainly had no lasting effect on his savage tenacity.
Yet that’s exactly the kind of person that I’d want to run an airline. Someone who isn’t afraid to get into a Mexican standoff with the authorities if it means making air travel safer for all. Case in point: Boeing later discovered an electrical design flaw that could have caused the reversers to spontaneously deploy on Flight 004 (although this has never been proven). The design flaw was so systemic that the entire Boeing fleet was affected; and Boeing, to their credit, ordered a mechanical locking system to be installed on all reversers so that they could never deploy in mid-air again.
If you think about it, Niki Lauda did the public a service like no other athlete has done before. If you’ve ever been on a commercial flight, chances are high that Lauda helped play a role in keeping you safe. Although the loss of life can never be trivialized, the victims of Flight 004 did not die in vain, thanks to the titanic determination of a man for whom failure was never an option. And countless air travelers around the world owe their lives to the changes that came about as a result.