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Safety Lessons from NASA and the FBI

In late February of 2021, a passenger on a commercial flight from Denver to Hawaii posted a video from their window seat looking outside and showing one of the airplane’s engines on fire

The video briefly went viral and was covered by media outlets around the world, from CNN to The Daily Mail — understandably so, as it was harrowing footage, depicting what must rank among the top nightmare scenarios of every airline passenger. 

The plane also dropped debris around suburban Denver. However, the story had a happy ending: the plane turned around and made a safe emergency landing shortly after takeoff, keeping all 241 occupants aboard safe and sound. 

The fact that the plane was able to land safely in this case is a great example of not only well-trained and capable pilots and airline crew members, but also of engineering: namely, designing “fail proof” vehicle systems, or at least, ones that when they do fail or suffer damage — don’t do so catastrophically, and can still be guided to a safe stop. 

That topic is at the center of the latest episode of No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving and artificial intelligence, co-hosted by Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky and columnist Alex Roy. 

They’re joined this time around by special guest Jose Orench, president of Orench Consulting. A trained mechanical engineer, former NASA Systems Engineer, and retired agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Orench spent the better part of the past four decades helping respond to, and investigate, crises involving complex vehicles, structures, and systems. 

Just look at the extensive crisis response experience listed on Orench’s website: “space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents; World Trade Center terrorist attacks; Hurricane Katrina; mass murders in Juarez, Mexico; Capeco Oil refinery explosion in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

Orench begins this episode of the No Parking by chronicling his takeaways from the investigation into the infamous 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, in which a spacecraft with defective parts was launched despite the warnings of subject matter experts, leading to catastrophic results. 

“Management should never override subject matter experts in making critical decisions like that,” Orench states.

The conversation continues into other high-profile disasters, from the space shuttle Columbia to the airliner with the flaming engine, and what we can learn about designing transportation systems that keep people safe even when things go wrong.

Listen to the full episode now and subscribe to No Parking Podcast for new episodes weekly.

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