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Tragic Story of the BEST Plane EVER MADE – Rockwell-MBB X-31 Thrust Vectoring NASA Project

This is an important video to watch by any person who will ever encounter a potentially dangerous, even life-threatening situation. It is about the X-31 experimental airplane that had flown 550 test flight missions, and on the 19th of January 1995 on the very last scheduled flight where it was flying another routine mission, one that was well within its capabilities, it suddenly went totally out of control and crashed.

The airplane was being video recorded with at least two high-definition cameras, and monitored on all possible sensors at the highest possible quality multichannel radio, back to Edwards Air Force test facilities. In the control room a team of some of the world’s best research personnel were monitoring the flight, analyzing risk and learning how to improve thrust-vectored airplanes. You may never see a better report for an accident than this video. The video was made by the people on the inside who were responsible for all aspects of the situation.

Some text from the video.

(video time marker) 0:04 of 38:51 – Chase pilot radio “NASA one. We have an ejection, we have an ejection. The aircraft is descending over the north base area. I have a chute. The pilot is out of the seat and the chute is good.”

Ground control, “Copy.”

Rogers Smith X-31 Project Pilot, “We had a highly competent team. Very experienced. Many flights under their belt.”

Ken Szalai, NASA Dryden Center Director, 1990-98. “Each mishap has its own set of circumstances and its own sequence of events. But you find similar issues, communications, complacency, assumptions that haven’t been warranted, human frailties, and you have to account for these things in a program.”

“This was the A team! The best people from every organization and we lost an airplane. So, if it can happen to the best team, it can happen to any team.”

3:31 – Ken Szalai, “We were not expanding the envelope or trying anything new … this was a routine mission, a routine task, routine environment, with an experienced pilot and an experienced crew.

6:08 Mission Pilot: “Okay, remind me…I just put pitot heat on. Remind me to put it off.”

Ground control, “Copy that.”

Internal Communication Only Engineer: “The pitot heat’s not hooked up on the Kiel Probe.”

“Copy that.”

10:38 – Commentary “R3 was a reversionary mode that would have removed within two seconds the airspeed data input into the flight control system. The control surface response to pilot input would then be independent of airspeed, allowing the airplane to remain controllable for the remainder of the flight back to the landing.”

12:27 – Rogers Smith, “A lack of attention to the reversionary mode. … Push the backup reversionary button, get the airplane under manual control and talk about it.”

14:29 – “It’s like expecting to hear, that went fine. After this program, with hundreds of flights, and everything going perfectly, in your mind you’re hearing things that weren’t happening. Everything is working fine, let’s come home.”

20:00 – Ken Szalai, “Every person involved in an experimental flight research program should actually study the mishaps of all experimental aircraft in the past twenty to thirty years. There’s a lot of things you can learn because human nature doesn’t change, the processes don’t change. It’s always the same set of contributing factors, just the names and the details change. Of the ten things that I describe as contributing causes of the mishap, six of them occurred prior to the day of the flight, four occurred within about two minutes. So we have a better chance of working on the six than we did on the four.”

29:20 – “In the case of any discrepancy, anything that doesn’t sound right, feel right, smell right, let’s stop and think it over. I think that kind of attitude has been built now into the control room mission, the control room processes since then.”

30:12 – Patrick Stoliker Lead Control Systems Engineer, “The mission is not over until the airplane is on the ground and the engine is shut down.”

35:58 – “We didn’t have it to the chase plane, we didn’t have it in the control room, lack of hot mikes is a contributing factor. We didn’t have in the control room, we discussed things internally that didn’t get to the pilot. We have to have an environment where people can speak up when they “think” something is wrong. They don’t have to be right, if they are concerned, they should be able to speak their mind. They put their hand up and we stop the train. Then we look at things and say, it’s all right and we go on. We didn’t do that.”
“We didn’t understand the severity of the problem.”

36:03 – Ken Szalai, “There aren’t many accidents. We don’t lose many airplanes in flight research activities at Dryden, we haven’t over the years. And so when you do have one you better learn everything about it, in fact, you should do the same thing for close calls.”
“The lessons to be learned. Don’t assume that they have been learned. We can always, with every new group… Every new group will have to learn the same lessons. And, you don’t want to do it the hard way with an accident …

36:51- good judgment from all levels of the program.

37:20 – Rogers Smith, “It’s always clear after the fact what you should have done … and nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. To lose judgment, to lose communication, to not do the right thing.”

37:30 – Ken Szalai, “So, what is the message? What is the message for the team? It may mean that “I” am a part of the chain, and if I don’t catch this and if other people don’t catch their mistakes we will run through the entire chain and lead to a mishap.

“‘Everybody’ is responsible for safety. If you think some safety office analysis is going to find these things, they won’t. Mishaps can occur everywhere, but the point is … You have to fly safely, but fly.”


Everyone is a risk at some time during their lives, and this video will help you to clarify just how difficult it is to spot rare events before they happen. A tiny piece of ice in the wrong place can bring about a catastrophe. However, if you haven’t put yourself into a situation where a tiny error will bring about a serious problem, then a tiny event probably won’t have any unusual effect.

If there are hurricane winds blowing, a tiny object might strike you with deadly force. Therefore, heed advice to get away from the hurricane, and if that’s impossible get into a place where the wind can’t possibly affect you. In those hurricane situations, it is more likely that fast-moving water will kill you. That may come from a tsunami-like storm-surge, or from getting into a flowing stream. Even a foot of fast flowing water can sweep a person off their feet and smash them into invisible things.

It’s easy to avoid problems when they are far away, and hard to cope with them when they are close.