Longform

Survivor

From the backseat of the single-engine airplane, Carmen Rivera-Worley watched uncomfortably as the 25-year-old pilot tapped his finger on an illuminated blue instrument. Raindrops streaked the plane's windows as it raced at about 120 mph through a blanket of ink-black clouds west of New Orleans.

Then, Rivera-Worley and the two other passengers heard pilot Bryan Scott Taylor say, "I've got an instrument failure."

Taylor's artificial horizon, a device that tells a pilot whether the aircraft is flying with wings level or banked, suddenly didn't seem to be working properly. He tapped it again.

"See?" he said, noting the condensation under the glass. "But that's OK. I can land with these others."

Suddenly, with a roller coaster's stomach-wrenching force, the airplane fell into a dive. Taylor banked hard, pushing Rivera-Worley against the airplane wall. The rest of the instruments, the ones that literally could tell Taylor up from down while flying blind, are out now, too, he announced. The airplane banked forcefully.

Without instruments and in zero visibility, the passengers and pilot had no point of reference. Taylor and everyone else on board became disoriented. It felt like they were climbing. It felt as if they were falling. For a few seconds after a hard turn, it seemed they were recovering. Then they dove again, hard. Taylor couldn't control the airplane. They were going to crash. The other backseat passenger next to Rivera-Worley, John Scott, unbuckled his seat belt and leaned his head and shoulders into the cockpit offering Taylor help.

Rivera-Worley also leaned forward, suddenly sick with fear. She laid her head against Scott's back and extended one arm in front of him so that she could hold onto Sarah, her 17-year-old daughter, in the front right seat. The airplane continued to buffet violently. Rivera-Worley held onto her daughter's arm. Sarah glanced back and looked into her mother's eyes, acknowledging the gesture before putting her head down. Rivera-Worley's mind raced. She prayed to herself hysterically.

"Oh God, please don't let this happen. Please come to our help...Don't let us die like this. Don't let us crash and burn. Don't take my baby daughter...Anything but this."

They didn't know it, but a vacuum pump installed in the 1969 Piper Cherokee 16 years before had stopped working. It powered two important instruments Taylor was using to keep the airplane level and pointed in the right direction. The sky around him was as dark as the swampy, expansive Lake Pontchartrain below. He needed those instruments, the artificial horizon and the directional gyroscope, to climb up out of the cloud cover or drop below it where he could see the ground and use his senses to level the plane and land it.

The New Orleans air traffic controller told Taylor he missed the airport. Taylor radioed that he didn't know whether he was climbing, then quickly realized he had lost control of the airplane and was about to crash. When the Piper Cherokee hit Lake Pontchartrain, the impact ripped it open. Water poured into the cabin, and the airplane began sinking to the bottom.

Rivera-Worley would first fight for her life to escape the sinking wreck and then spend hours in the water. Then she and the pilot's father would begin a fight with those they say are responsible for the crash and many other similar accidents--most notably the federal government. They say the Federal Aviation Administration has not done enough to warn the public about the danger of vacuum pump failures nor done anything to fix the problem that is known to be causing small airplanes to crash.

"Nobody in their right mind takes such risks," Rivera-Worley says. "Had anyone told me that there was a vital instrument on this airplane that my daughter and I were going to get on that can fail and is known to fail without warning, I wouldn't have gotten on the plane. Good grief."


Before boarding the aircraft on a quick trip to visit Tulane University in New Orleans, Taylor, Scott, Rivera-Worley and her daughter, Sarah, had no idea of the risk they were taking. They didn't know that the vacuum pumps that operate a small airplane's vital instruments had failed without warning hundreds of times before. Most times when a pump fails, pilots can see the topography and real horizon to land the airplane. Since 1983, however, at least 43 airplanes have crashed and 86 people have died in accidents attributed to vacuum pump failures in cloudy conditions, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) records.

But on an early Wednesday evening in April 1998, when Rivera-Worley's jovial group sat at a round table at the Sweetwater Grill and Tavern in Denton, they had no way of knowing the danger. The group included Rivera-Worley, who was 44 at the time, her husband, Lee Worley, and their two children, Ernest Worley and Sarah Worley, and John Scott. Scott, 34, was a Tulane graduate, a Denton County executive and friend of the family. He was anxious to show Sarah around the Tulane campus.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius