A sexy little secret was unraveling inside the cockpit of United Airlines flight 585 when it crashed eight years ago in Colorado Springs, killing all 25 passengers and crew members aboard.
The cause of the March 1991 crash remained "undetermined" by the National Transportation Safety Board until last week, when investigators announced at a federal hearing that a faulty rudder system was the likely cause of catastrophe. But others in attendance--particularly officials from the Boeing Company, manufacturers of the 737--still cling to theories outside the NTSB's report.
One such theory goes like this: The pilot, 51-year-old Harold Green, was sleeping with co-pilot Patricia Eidson, 42. Green was a married man with a young daughter. Eidson was also involved with someone else. But the two were passionate lovers. That is, until Eidson told Green she wanted to end the affair. She broke the news just moments before they were preparing to land at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport on a crystal-clear sun-filled morning. Enraged, Green grabbed the cockpit fire ax and thwacked Eidson in the head, killing her instantly. Then he grabbed the controls and, from 1,000 feet in the air, drove the plane straight into the ground. The impact created a crater fifteen feet deep and folded the Boeing 737 like an accordion with six creases.
"That," says Gail Dunham, Green's widow, "is a story created by the airline industry."
No one denies that the story--which circulated among some families of crash victims, pilots, investigators and journalists--is a fake. Dunham claims it was planted by agents inside the airline industry who hoped to throw reporters off the scent of a more likely suspect: mechanical failure.
"They don't want to say they were wrong," she says of Boeing officials. "They want to push it off on someone else. They don't want to be responsible."
Frustrated by the slow progress in determining the true cause of the Colorado Springs crash, Dunham founded the National Air Disaster Alliance and Foundation for family members of airplane-crash victims. For eight years, the group has hounded the NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration for an explanation of the crash of Flight 585. It was Dunham's diligence, combined with newspaper reporters' investigations, that uncovered the faulty rudder systems on Boeing 737s, the most commonly used planes in the world.
Though the Colorado Springs ax rumor didn't make it into the pages of the local dailies--where it could have swayed the opinions of potential jurors in a civil trial--it did appear on the cover of New York's Newsday on the one-year anniversary of the mysterious crash. The Newsday story quotes an unidentified "safety expert" as saying, "Even if he was on a suicide mission, he couldn't get that flight path"--but there's no explanation as to why the safety expert was discussing whether Green might have been suicidal.
The alleged final seconds of flight 585 were also scripted out in an article the same week in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The Sun-Sentinel story took a straightforward approach by detailing the grisly rumor and then debunking it. "One version of the rumor was that the cockpit fire ax was found with blood and brain tissue on it," wrote reporter Ken Kaye. He then quoted NTSB boardmember and crash-site director John Lauber, who had conducted a search for the ax. "It's a loose end," Lauber said. "But when I look at the positive evidence we have, this scenario could not have happened, or anything like it."
Kaye says he first heard the rumor from a United Airlines pilot. "At the time, all the pilots were talking about it," he says. "They really didn't know what brought it down." Adds Kaye, "I hope it was made clear in my story that there was no way this was true." So why were pilots talking about a mid-air love-rage slaying as if it were possible? "They're a very gossipy community," Kaye says.
Several reporters and editors who worked on the story for the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News and the Colorado Springs Gazette say that they never heard the ax rumor. "But that doesn't mean it wasn't out there," says Gazette news editor Cliff Foster. "Any disaster comes with plenty of rumors."
How true. When Pan Am flight 103 exploded above Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, rumors hit the ground almost as fast as the plane. But unlike the Colorado Springs ax rumor, the source of the misinformation was tracked down and held accountable. Last year a New York district court sentenced Lester Coleman, 56, to three years of supervised release and a $30,000 fine for concocting a story that shifted blame for the crash away from the airline--and onto the government--to save Pan Am and its insurers millions of dollars in claims.
Coleman, who worked as an occasional informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in his guilty plea that he approached Pan Am lawyers with a simple plan: For $38,000, he would provide an affidavit that implicated the DEA in a botched sting operation on the plane; he'd even throw in some Iranian terrorists. He claimed Pan Am paid him $19,000 up front for the fabrication. Shortly thereafter, journalist Roy Rowan took the bait and used Coleman's invention to write a Time magazine cover story in April 1992. With a new public understanding of the "facts" of the crash as reported by Rowan, Pan Am lawyers entered the Coleman affidavit in an attempt to prove that the United States government was to blame for the disaster. Ultimately, a jury dismissed the DEA connection and found Pan Am responsible for allowing an unattended suitcase spiked with plastic explosives to board the plane.
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None of which surprises Green's widow, Dunham (who is now remarried). Still, she declines to surmise what set of circumstances created the Colorado Springs ax rumor. Was it a group of cigarette-smoking men sitting around a table at headquarters who dispatched a "well-placed" source to the crash site? Was it a greedy rumormonger acting alone, like Coleman? Or was it gossipy pilots from United Airlines?
Dunham has little patience for even discussing the subject. "We're talking big corporate greed here," Dunham says. "FAA, Boeing--think big corporate people looking out for one another. It's not that hard."
At the two-day hearing last week, Boeing investigators admitted slight flaws in the rudder systems of 737s but were reluctant to admit that the system's overall design was faulty. While the NTSB blamed the rudder for a crash similar to that of flight 585 in 1994 near Pittsburgh, in which 132 people died, Boeing argued that that crash was caused by pilot error, possibly due to a sudden "panic attack." And with Dunham and supporters in the gallery--and despite NTSB evidence that explains two crashes and one near-miss caused by faulty rudder systems on Boeing 737s--Boeing officials said wind caused the crash of flight 585 in Colorado Springs.