Parts of the puzzle

Unearthing the safety lessons at a Texas salvage yard

July 1, 2012


Photography by Chris Rose

The gigantic hangar in Lancaster, Texas, could be a fixture at nearly any airport in the nation—except for two things. Tall racks of aircraft parts line its interior; and hanging from the wall is the rudder from Rick “Ricky” Nelson’s DC–3.

hen bad things happen to good aircraft, the wreckage very often finds its way here, to Air Salvage of Dallas (ASOD). The company acquires wrecked or no-longer-flying aircraft and turns them inside out for every salvageable instrument, spar, or wing tip. What’s left—fuselages minus wings—form neat rows outside the main hangar.

It also stores aircraft that have been in accidents—tangles of wreckage that will eventually move inside the main hangar. Here, ASOD fulfills another vital function: It provides a staging area and investigation assistance to the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the manufacturers, and insurance companies.

“We look forward to coming to work every day,” says Alfred “Lucky” Louque, the longtime manager.


That might seem odd, coming from the man who knows the sad history of each pile of aluminum in the salvage yard. But Louque is sincere. He does not dwell on the constant reminders that pilots make poor decisions that sometimes prove fatal. Instead, he focuses on the messages—the lessons—that these wrecks can provide.

The main hangar

Louque greets visitors to the facility on a drizzly morning and takes us first to the main hangar, where the racks, racks, and more racks of parts are on display. There are tens of thousands parts in ASOD’s inventory. You can view a fraction of them on its website.

ASOD owner and founder Paul Camp fought in the Korean War and learned to fly on the GI Bill in 1959. He ran an FBO, was a designated pilot examiner, and flew corporate before opening a maintenance shop at Lancaster Airport.

The maintenance shop transitioned to salvage in the 1970s. “We knew so many of the insurance people,” Camp says, “[the salvage and storage business] was an easy transition.” The company offered a one-stop service in which it would take a rig to the scene of an accident, bring the aircraft back, help with the teardown and investigation—and eventually try to purchase them and salvage parts for resale.

When the airport manager began to grumble about T-hangars tied up with parts and aircraft storage, Camp bought a nearby parcel of land in 1981 and moved the business there in 1985.

Piecing out Skyhawks

A Cessna 172 minus its engine and fuselage is laid out inside the main hangar. Two ASOD employees can strip a 172 in one day, Louque says.

parts from stripped planes

I have to ask: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve found in an airplane? Louque pauses. “A hammer, bucking bars, screwdrivers”—tools that found their way where they shouldn’t have. He also has discovered the very occasional bag of marijuana tucked behind an upholstery panel.

Each part is tagged with an item, part, and lot number. Those link to an N number and an aircraft. An entire room off the main hangar contains nothing but logbooks, so that parts may be identified and checked against a particular make and model. This system protects the company, because it’s proof that the aircraft was acquired legally, Camp says. “If you buy a pallet of used parts, you don’t know where they came from.”

Components are sold as approved parts, which differentiates them from airworthy parts. “The only thing I’m saying is that it came off an airplane,” Louque says. “Most of the parts I inspect are airworthy, but I didn’t sign it off.” Even so, he says, he instructs staff not to send out anything “that you wouldn’t put on an airplane.”

Incredibly, until very recently ASOD kept track of its inventory with ledgers. Louque says the system is being computerized this year.

“We don’t have returned parts,” says Camp. “We just don’t. Because the right one gets sent.”

The investigation room

Just off the main hangar is a room set aside for accident investigations. Here, approximately 80 times a year, Louque and his crew assist representatives from the FAA, the NTSB, insurance companies, manufacturers. They tear down wreckage, lay out and help to identify parts, and tag everything. Eighty percent of accident airplanes come from a five-state area, but “they come from all over,” he says.

There is no investigation taking place today, so the room is bare. There’s no furniture—nothing but a large window. The sterile environment suggests an almost surgical setting. Investigations can be conducted in total seclusion if a sensitive situation warrants it.

airplane parts

The NTSB has total control over investigations, Louque says. That said, the NTSB invites him to sit in on each investigation. “We don’t have an axe to grind with anybody,” he adds.

Louque’s uncanny ability to decipher clues to probable cause—honed over more than 30 years of working in aircraft maintenance—has helped investigations, Camp says. “He’s amazing at sniffing out what went wrong.”

Louque is quick to emphasize that ASOD’s role is supportive; he will offer an opinion as to the cause of the accident, but ASOD won’t appear in court even if requested.

“We’ll tell [your] expert, and he can go to the courthouse,” Camp says. “We won’t be deposed, subpoenaed, or anything like that.”

The containment areas

As we head outside in the drizzle to tour the remainder of the facility, Louque takes us to a secured containment area known as the litigation room. It holds more than 100 aircraft engines. Each engine represents an accident that’s still in litigation or being held for NTSB review. Access to the room is restricted to ensure that nothing is tampered with.

We see many gnarled, twisted props, and Mark Evans—an AOPA corporate pilot who has joined us for the tour—recoils and says, “I get a bad feeling from this.”

An adjacent hangar holds helicopters. Some are wrecks; others are simply waiting to be disassembled and containerized for shipment. Two ASOD employees can tear down a Robinson R22 in two days. An R44 takes more time because there’s more equipment to be removed.

We climb into a golf cart to view what will ultimately be the most disturbing yet edifying part of our visit. Louque drives us into an open-air pen that holds dozens of piles of aircraft wreckage. Some are easily recognized by make and model; others are simply heaps of shredded metal. Each has a tag that flutters in the damp breeze. Because these accident aircraft are pending a final determination from the NTSB, photographer Chris Rose is not permitted to photograph them.

Louque drives among the aircraft hulks, pointing here and there.

“That big pile of mess…that’s a King Air that flew into a thunderstorm.” Heaps of metal fragments bear little resemblance to any type of vehicle, let alone a King Air.

Near the King Air is a Piper Cherokee Six and a tangle of power lines.

airplane scraps

“Here’s a Baron that ran out of fuel. How do you run out of fuel in a Baron?” Louque asks rhetorically.

And on and on, until our sobering tour takes us past the ruined hulk of a jet
to the very edge of the yard, where a row of wings is waiting to be sent to the smelter.

The Air Safety Institute’s Joseph T. Nall Report, a yearly examination of NTSB data, finds that pilot-related causes—poor decision making, lack of skill, pilot incapacitation—accounted for about 77 percent of accidents in fixed-wing aircraft each year over a 10-year period. Mechanical failures account for just under 14 percent. “Other and unknown”—unexplained power losses, bird strikes, aircraft that went missing and were never recovered—represented about 9 percent of accidents.

Louque shares what he learns with airframe and powerplant mechanics with inspection authorization who come each year to ASOD’s popular daylong seminar. FAR Part 65 requires mechanics to renew their IAs every other year; eight hours of approved FAA training per year is one of the ways in which IAs can meet the renewal requirements.

“We have show and tell—parts that fail, and why they failed,” Louque says. Particularly revealing are cases in which an airworthiness directive wasn’t complied with, he says. “Last year we tried to show the accidents that were maintenance-related and I didn’t have but three or four.”

The seminars draw mechanics who have already completed the minimum activity needed to meet the IA renewal requirements—but they come anyway. They tell Louque that they want to learn more about accidents and what causes them.

“Every accident came at a price,” Louque says. “It would be foolish not to take what we can learn from people who paid the price.”

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Rick Nelson: A Travelin’ Man

Eric Hillard Nelson might have spent his entire life as a television actor. He did, after all, come of age on his father’s television show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, when he was called Ricky. But as a teenager in the 1950s, Ricky Nelson got caught up in the rock ’n roll tidal wave. He recorded a cover of Fats Domino’s I’m Walkin’ and performed the song on the show, and from that point forward he was a musician. Recordings of Poor Little Fool and Travelin’ Man hit number one on the charts in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

When the television show ended in 1965, Nelson (now known as Rick) continued to perform, tour, and record music. Facing an especially rigorous tour schedule in support of a new album, Nelson purchased a DC–3, N711Y, that reportedly had once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis.

On December 31, 1985, N711Y was headed from Alabama to Texas, carrying Nelson, his band members, and another passenger. Saying, “I’ve got a little problem here,” the pilot told ATC he wanted to turn back to Texarkana. He was provided a vector and advised of the closest airports, but later reported smoke in the cockpit. The aircraft struck power lines, a pole, and a tree before crashing in a field in DeKalb, Texas. The pilot and co-pilot were able to escape the wreckage, but Nelson and the others died in the ensuing fire.

Lucky Louque remembers that investigation very well. The burned DC–3 came to Air Salvage of Dallas, and so did a veritable platoon of investigators. The high-profile accident had generated a lot of publicity, and rumors were circulating about what had brought down the aircraft.

In its final report, the NTSB said, “During flight, the crew was unable to start the cabin heater, despite repeated attempts by the captain. Smoke then entered the cabin. Fresh air vents and cockpit windows were opened, but smoke became dense. The crew had difficulty seeing. “The oxygen system and handheld fire extinguishers were not used. Fasteners for the heater door were found unfastened. Examination indicated the fire originated in the aft cabin area, right hand side, at or near the floor line. The ignition and fuel sources were not determined.” —JWT

He’s Lucky

Ask for Alfred Louque by his first name and you might get a blank stare from his coworkers. He’s been Lucky his entire life.

Louque, who is originally from Louisiana, visited Paul and Claudia Camp as a teenager one summer (he’s a cousin of Claudia Camp) and got bit by the flying bug—bitten so hard that he didn’t want to return home when the school year started. He did go home—for a few weeks. He told his parents, “I can’t stay here. I’ve got to go back to Texas,” and was ready to leave with or without their permission.

Louque’s parents made him promise to finish his education—which he did. Working in Paul Camp’s shop, he learned to fly and got stick time in aircraft that that the shop repaired and test-flew. He earned an airframe and powerplant certificate at age 18 and had been establishing his own repair business when Camp approached him with an idea for what would eventually become Air Salvage of Dallas. Louque joined the business full-time in 1979 and has been there ever since. In 2009 he was named the FAA’s Airframe Maintenance Technician of the Year.

“I am the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I am blessed because I get paid to do what I love.” —JWT

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.