Colorado author David Soucie battles to mend modern aviation
David Soucie is first to admit his line of work is a lonely one. Then again, his definition of loneliness is far from typical.
When Soucie and I met in February, roughly a month before the one-year anniversary of doomed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Colorado native and former Summit County resident was in the midst of a hectic week. He’d just returned from a jaunt to the CNN headquarters in New York City, where he regularly appears on flagship programs like “Anderson Cooper 360” and “Erin Burnett Out Front” as an airline safety analyst. He had only a day to swing by his second home in Silverthorne before heading back to Denver. From there, he would board another flight bound for New York to finalize details on his soon-to-debut CNN program, “Special Investigations Unit,” a Q&A show with expert interviews taped in a living-room studio overlooking the Blue River.
“I love fly-fishing,” Soucie says, lapsing into a quote-friendly brand of commentary that journalists enjoy and that comes naturally to TV pros. “I’m right on the Blue River, you know, so I can get out there anytime I want. It’s my Zen.”
Yet in the lead-up to the MH370 anniversary, Soucie hardly has time to find meditative loneliness. All the hopscotching from city to city and coast to coast requires hundreds of hours on airplanes, which is where professional loneliness starts to creep in.
Now, as an aviation lifer, Soucie isn’t the sort to feel homesick walking through an airport terminal, nor is he the sort to get queasy at the mere sight of an airplane. Cavernous hangars and even cramped public terminals are like second homes.
No, Soucie’s loneliness is based more on what he sees as the outdated paradigms and institutions those sleek jets represent: bloated bureaucracy, corporate hubris and, in the case of government agencies like his former employer, the Federal Aviation Administration, a frightening disregard for proactive thinking. He’s in the thick of “a large fight and a lonely fight,” he says, with himself in one corner and industry heavyweights in the other — a classic David versus Goliath situation.
“The only way to change safety is to change the way we think about safety,” Soucie says, echoing the basic philosophy of each of his three books. “The response is often a knee-jerk response. I’m taking us from a diagnosis, which is what we’ve always done with a kind of postmortem, and moving to a prognosis. If you don’t have a prognosis, how can you fix a problem? All you can do is react to what’s happened in the past.”
HANGERS TO HOT SEAT
Oddly enough, reaction has driven Soucie’s 35-year career in the aviation industry, even as he’s battled to erase it from the industry. His first book, “Why Planes Crash,” is a combination memoir and thesis statement, built around his journey from bright-eyed aviation mechanic with Learjet and Air Methods in Colorado to a top FAA accident inspector.
The turning point came in 1984, when one of Soucie’s best friends hit a suspended wire while piloting a helicopter through the Four Corners area in southern Colorado. His friend’s helicopter was nearly cut in half, and Soucie arrived at the Grand Junction hospital shortly before his friend died of injuries sustained in the crash.
“I was 26 years old, making lots of money, everything was groovy,” Soucie says, then trails off for a beat or two. “After my friend died, I decided I was going to devote my life to safety, figure out how to make the financial people account for safety.”
Within a year, Soucie found a job with the FAA, kick-starting an investigative career that lasted until 2006. He saw dozens of small and large crashes in that time, yet as he dove deeper into the convoluted world of federal bureaucracy, he realized the FAA’s backwards approach to safety was doing more harm than good.
“The left hand hardly knows what the right hand is doing,” Soucie says. “There’s so much more to investigating an accident than, ‘Did the pilot do the right thing?’ and ‘Did the mechanic do the right thing?’ The system just can’t take every factor into account.”
Yet even more disturbing was corporate complacency. Again, Soucie points to systemic failures, like air traffic controllers who allow pilots to fly through dangerous weather, or airline inspectors who make changes to extend the life of mechanical parts by 1,000-plus hours.
“Aircraft accidents are so anomalous,” Soucie says. “It’s hard to fit that into your business plan, that something like this can happen. I think the paradigms and cultures in the airline world can get in the way, because it’s hard to imagine that flying isn’t safe. You have thousands and thousands of flights where only one goes wrong, but that one can still be avoided.”
In the latter portion of his career, Soucie has moved away from the nitty-gritty of wreck investigations to the relatively glamorous worlds of publishing, cable news and corporate consulting. It’s been a peculiar transition, particularly for a boy who grew up humbly in north Denver and never graduated from college. He’s now surrounded and respected by top minds in billion-dollar fields, yet, as he notes with a touch of disbelief, he’s caught in a sort of professional limbo.
“When you’re on television, people accuse you of being a glory hog,” Soucie says. “I’m not sure if it’s jealousy or what… I don’t want to come across as being super-arrogant, but it’s a weird feeling. What I’ve done lately is focus on the message, focus on the education, not let my ego get in the way.”
DOOMED TO REPEAT
As we sit in a quiet boardroom, Soucie begins flipping through his latest book, “Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,” a detailed look at the systemic failures that led to one of the most mysterious and contested aircraft disappearances since that of Amelia Earhart.
When the author reaches his pièce de résistance, an intricate safety algorithm and chart titled “The Accident Algorithm,” he frowns.
“I don’t know why they crammed it into a small space,” Soucie says, squinting to make out figures and criteria he knows by heart. “They should’ve given it a page of its own.”
The algorithm is the crux of the book’s ominous subtitle: “Why It Disappeared — And Why It’s Only a Matter of Time Before This Happens Again.” As Soucie puts it, he has little interest in the myriad theories, legitimate and otherwise, about the MH370 disappearance. He’d much rather look at reasonable ways to prevent future disappearances, such as black boxes with 90-day life spans, as opposed to the current industry standard of 30 days.
TV LEARNING CURVE
At first, Soucie was worried the book was just repeating what he’d already said on CNN, but then he noticed that airlines — and viewers — were taking his advice to heart.
“They saw that, finally, someone on television is talking about what can be done,” Soucie says. “People no longer want to hear about the crash and the aftermath and the tragedy. They want to know what’s being done so they can make a decision to say, ‘This airline and this aircraft has the right equipment, I want to fly with them.’”
While the TV learning curve was steep, Soucie says hosts like Cooper and Burnett helped him fine-tune his presentation, to the point where going in front of a camera felt natural.
“All these guys are really, really the pros,” Soucie says. “They let you know, ‘You aren’t a newscaster, you aren’t a journalist — you’re a specialist in your field.’”
But becoming a specialist was hardly Soucie’s goal. As he says, things just sort of fell into place, even when away from his Zen home on the Blue River.
“This wasn’t really a plan,” Soucie says of his career. “I’ve been very fortunate. I feel as though the universe has aligned with my mission. I’ve always had this vision of my purpose, what I’m here for. … It seems as though things have fallen into place. I’m grateful.”
And just a bit lonely.
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