Capt. Ken "Mule" Adams

The 2000 ALPA Air Safety Award honors a line pilot air safety volunteer for years of dedicated service to pilots and the traveling public.

Air Line Pilot, August 2001, p.10
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

The days of someone trying to kill him—with SAMs, Triple A, and MiGs—during his bombing missions over North Vietnam were yet to come. Today, Lt. (jg) Ken Adams (USN) was learning what so many men and women who wear a uniform in the service of their country find out—even the training can kill you.

The fire in the guts of his F9F Cougar had burned through control lines to the tail. He’d made it back to low key to land at NAS Kingsville near the Texas coast, but now the airplane was pitching down, no longer responsive to the stick in his gloved hand.

The Cougar, designed in 1955, originally was delivered without an ejection seat. Luckily for Lt. (jg) Adams, this Cougar was a later model. The time had come to "read the instructions on the back of the face curtain"—i.e., eject.

Hanging under the nylon savior, sore and bleeding from punching out through the Cougar’s canopy, Lt. (jg) Adams watched his crippled airplane arc earthward.

"It was headed right for a big Celanese plant that made nitrates for explosives," he recalls. "I thought, ‘Well, there goes south Texas.’"

The Cougar narrowly missed the Celanese plant and a woman and her daughter driving on a nearby road.

Subsequent investigation revealed that mechanics had inadvertently replaced a part in the Cougar’s engine with the wrong part for that model. In hindsight, the accident was almost a foregone conclusion.

Today, Capt. Ken Adams (Delta) is a 59-year-old MD-11 pilot based in Atlanta. He has served his fellow pilots and the traveling public for more than 15 years as an ALPA air safety volunteer, working with laudable dedication to investigate—and prevent—accidents in the airline industry.

This month, during an awards banquet at the annual ALPA Air Safety Forum in Washington, D.C., the Association’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, will present to Capt. Adams the 2000 ALPA Air Safety Award, the Association’s highest honor for a line pilot volunteer for aviation safety work.

The prestigious award honors Capt. Adams for "significant contributions to flight safety while representing the best interests of airline pilots through his many years of service as a member of the ALPA international safety structure. His unselfish participation, leadership, and progressive insight have greatly contributed to many of the Association’s successes in air safety and accident investigation. His tireless efforts have also been instrumental in establishing a world class safety structure at Delta Air Lines."

From machinist to pilot Ken Adams was born in Huntington, Ind., in 1942. His stepfather owned a machine shop in Dayton, Ohio.

"I started out sweeping floors, then working on the easiest machine to not screw up—the drill press," he remembers. "I worked my way up through all the machines in the shop, including the ball grinder, then went to work in the prototype shop." By the time he graduated from high school, the young Adams was a master machinist.

He also worked as a line boy at Montgomery Field in Dayton, converting his labor on the ground into flight training. He flew several different kinds of airplanes, almost all without radios—Cubs, Champs, Luscombes, Taylorcrafts.

"I had a hard time learning to fly and talk at the same time," he laughs. He earned his private pilot certificate, however, in 1958.

In 1964, he graduated from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) with a B.S. degree in physics and mathematics. Having attended college on a U.S. Navy ROTC scholarship, his postgraduate plans were already set.

Flight cadet Adams reported to Pensacola for flight training in November 1964; by then, he’d accumulated enough total flight time to obtain a commercial pilot certificate. He flew T-34s at Saufley Field, T-2 Buckeyes at NAS Meridian (Miss.). Next came F9F Cougars at NAS Kingsville (Tex.).

After transitioning to the A-4 Skyhawk at NAS Lemoore (Calif.), Lt. Adams deployed to the U.S.S. Oriskany in the South China Sea. He flew in southeast Asia from August 1966 until November 1968 during three cruises—two on the Oriskany, and one on the U.S.S. Hancock.

Early on the morning of Oct. 21, 1966, flares ignited in a forward locker on the Oriskany, near the ship’s No. 1 elevator, starting a fierce fire. Lt. (jg) Adams led several of his shipmates to safety via a little-known escape route, narrowly escaping death.

"We lost a number of pilots who were sleeping in forward compartments," Capt. Adams remembers. "It was devastating to our squadron. Almost everyone had to be replaced."

The Oriskany sailed for San Diego; months later, it was ready for war again.

"The second cruise was a bad one," Capt. Adams recalls. "We lost a lot of pilots, because the war was being run by Washington. I think we suffered needless losses."

In all, Capt. Adams flew 235 combat missions in southeast Asia and received numerous medals—the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and 26 other air medals. On the "glory wall" in his home office, some of the medals are mounted with a piece of 37 mm shrapnel removed from his cockpit.

He also survived a hit from a SAM. Therein lies a tale—the true origin of his widely known nickname, "Mule." Though many who know Capt. Adams naturally associate his nickname with his, let us say, tenacity, "Mule" actually was the second call sign he acquired as a Navy attack pilot.

"I got the nickname ‘Animal’ from the other guys in my squadron," he explains. "One of the pilots, Lt. Cmdr. Jerry ‘Felter’ Breast, was from Tennessee; the way he pronounced ‘Animal,’ it sounded like ‘Andy Mule.’

"One day we were on a mission over enemy territory and he tried to warn me of an incoming SAM. Because he took longer to say ‘Andy Mule,’ I took a hit from the SAM. Later, we decided to shorten my call sign to just plain ‘Mule.’"

Air safety volunteer

In April 1970, Lt. Adams traded his Navy uniform for that of a Delta DC-8 second officer based in Miami. After a couple of years, he moved to Atlanta as a DC-8 second officer instructor. He stayed in Atlanta, and moved up through the seats and fleets—DC-9, L-1011, B-737, B-727, B-757/767, and MD-11. Along the way he has served as a flight instructor, check airman, and line check airman.

In 1984, he started his first ALPA volunteer safety job, as an ALPA airport liaison representative responsible for Atlanta Hartsfield and other airports in the southeastern United States.

"Joe Fegundes, a DC-8 captain, roped me into that," Capt. Adams laughs. "Then I became a ‘friend’ of ALPA’s Airport Standards Committee [now part of ALPA’s Airport Ground Environment Group]. At that time, the Committee was still working on airport signage and markings."

While ALPA’s work in this area included helping to set national and international standards for signage and markings, it also involved a lot of grunt work on the local level by pilot volunteers.

Even a world-class airport such as Atlanta’s Hartsfield International can benefit from the watchful eyes and incomparable experience of its ultimate users, pilots. For example, "Taxiway Kilo here at Atlanta banks and makes a sharp turn," Capt. Adams explains. "We got the airport management to put up a sign with an arrow on it, directly opposite the pilots, to show the turn."

In 1986, Capt. Adams attended ALPA’s Basic Accident Investigation course and became a member of the Delta MEC accident investigation team.

His first accident investigation involved Delta Flight 1141, a B-727-200 that crashed on takeoff at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Aug. 31, 1988.

The three flight crew members testified at the subsequent NTSB public hearing that they had set the flaps for takeoff, and the cockpit voice recorder tape indicated that the pilots believed they had extended the flaps while completing the pre-takeoff checklist.

The flap handle was found retracted, but the position of the flaps indicated by the aircraft wreckage and other testimony remained controversial.

Capt. Adams was ALPA’s representative to the NTSB systems group on that investigation—because of his background, and because he was a captain instructor current in the airplane.

"The accident occurred soon after the [Delta] merger with Western [Airlines]," Capt. Adams recalls. "I felt that was contributory to the accident—we had gone through a lot of changes in checklists.

"That was a bad time for Delta. We had problems with our checklists and how we ran our check airman program. We went through a big change for the better.

"If you look at the checklist that was in use at the time [of the accident] versus the checklist developed later by [NASA’s aviation human factors specialists] Asaf Degani and Earl Wiener, you’ll see the later checklist was a big improvement. Degani and Wiener conducted a definitive study on checklist design and helped us develop the new checklist."

Central air safety chairman

In 1989, Capt. Adams succeeded Capt. Terry Mullane as central air safety chairman for the Delta pilots. He served in that capacity until 1993—and then again from 1999 until June 2001.

Heading the pilot volunteer air safety structure for a group that has swelled to 9,683 members, flying 549 airplanes to 324 airports in 48 states and 64 countries, is a huge job.

Just one example: Capt. Adams and ALPA staff attorney Bill Elliott worked for more than 2 years to develop an agreement with Delta management on crew rest facilities and crew relief seats for the company’s B-767-400ER, B-777, and MD-11 fleet. Their success is printed in black and white in the Delta pilots’ recently ratified contract, which "gives ALPA the authority to arbitrate the final solution to crew rest facilities and relief seats," Capt. Adams reports. "We’ll try to work out a mutually agreeable solution; but if we can’t, we can take it to an arbitrator."

Capt. Adams is particularly proud of the crew rest facilities that will be retrofitted to Delta’s Triple Sevens. "The airplanes will have an ‘attic’—an overhead facility—with two bunks. We’ll also have two business-class seats with curtains around the seats, footrests, and a 160-degree–layback angle."

Asked what he considers his greatest accomplishment as central air safety chairman, Capt. Adams says, "Being able to look at the team of volunteers we’ve put together in our MEC’s Central Air Safety Committee and see what they’ve done collectively. We have about 50 volunteers in the MEC safety structure; about 30 of those are really active.

"I’ve enjoyed tremendous support from the MEC. We’ve gone from an MEC budget of $37,000 for safety work in 1989 to $480,000 in this year’s budget. It’s a shame that we have to pay dues to ensure our own safety on the job.

"We watch our budget closely—it’s our pilots’ dues. We’ve had to prove that we’re worth it. The quality of our pilot volunteers is outstanding. I think we’ve been a very good deal for the dollar."

Which is one of the reasons Capt. Adams has placed a high priority on publishing The Safety Mind, the Delta MEC’s bi-monthly safety magazine. "We communicate to line pilots what we’ve been doing, so they know we’re not just sitting here on our fat rear ends," he explains.

His approach to writing for his peers is, "I want to make ’em think, to give them a more philosophical approach to problem-solving. You don’t need to tell them what they’re doing wrong or should be doing.

"I believe management too often talks down to the pilots. I think you need to make people part of the solution—and to make them feel that they are. Just pose the questions, and let them figure out how to deal with the problem. Don’t insult their intelligence."

On a broader scale, Capt. Adams asserts, "When I took over as central air safety chairman in 1989, we [the ALPA air safety structure] were more parochial—we didn’t share information well enough. We started working together; we draw on each other for support now more than we used to."

One of the most important changes was the way pilots flying for the larger airlines worked with and supported their peers who fly for smaller airlines.

ASA 2311—and One Level of Safety

"Mule started the practice of inviting all of the Delta code-share partners to the Delta MEC Annual Air Safety Workshop during his first term as [Delta] central air safety chairman," notes Capt. Mitchell Serber (Comair), chairman of ALPA’s Operations Committee, which is made up of the central air safety chairmen of every ALPA pilot group.

On April 5, 1991, during a Delta MEC Air Safety Workshop in San Diego, beepers sounded simultaneously on three pilot participants—Capt. Adams, Capt. Paul McCarthy (Delta), then chairman of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board, and Capt. Stu Updike (Atlantic Southeast), who was the ASA pilot group’s Central Air Safety Chairman.

ASA Flight 2311, an Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia flight from Atlanta to Brunswick, Ga., had crashed on final approach to Brunswick’s Glynco Jetport. Both pilots, the flight attendant, and all 20 passengers died in the crash.

The NTSB’s official report on the accident, issued more than a year later, said that the probable cause was "the loss of control in flight as a result of a malfunction of the left engine propeller control unit, which allowed the propeller blade angles to go below the flight idle position."

The NTSB investigation, to which ALPA was a full party, showed that a change in Hamilton Standard’s process for manufacturing 14RF series propellers had greatly accelerated internal wear in what was, in effect, a single-string, non-redundant control system (see "ASA 2311: One in a Billion?" June 1993).

"Capt. Adams immediately put the Delta Air Safety Committee at the disposal of Capt. Updike," Capt. Serber explains. "ASA’s management proved inadequate to the task of helping their own pilots participate in the accident investigation. Ken used his outstanding relationship with Delta’s management to help get the ASA pilot accident investigators from San Diego to Brunswick—an unheard-of event at that time.

"Ken assigned Delta pilots to the accident investigation under Capt. Updike’s leadership. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for ALPA to participate in the NTSB investigation if Ken had not first begun cross-talk protocols with the Delta code-sharing airlines. While ASA management appeared to intentionally keep its pilots from participating by refusing to release them to do the work, Ken’s team stepped up to the plate—willing and able to serve."

Working with Capts. Serber and Updike increased Capt. Adams’ understanding of the plight of pilots who fly for smaller airlines and the two levels of safety that existed in the U.S. scheduled air transportation industry. He threw the weight and influence of his position behind the efforts of his fellow pilots to bring their part of the industry up to large-airline standards. ALPA’s subsequent One Level of Safety campaign was so successful that the Department of Transportation and the FAA adopted the slogan as their own in December 1995 (see "A Banner Day for Air Safety," February 1996).

Santa Ana insanity

Another of Capt. Adams’ efforts as Delta central air safety chairman that had national—even international—effects had to do with aircraft noise.

Santa Ana/John Wayne Orange County Airport (SNA) in southern California has long been the "tail that wags the dog" regarding aircraft noise abatement. During the 1980s, the airport management, bending to tremendous pressure from local residents, imposed increasingly stringent noise abatement restrictions on airlines operating there. The airlines engaged in "competitive flying" to placate SNA and its neighbors; pilots found themselves pressured into flying marginally safe noise abatement departure procedures.

The situation became so bad that Delta developed procedures for B-757 departures at SNA that had pilots rotating to 25 degrees nose up during initial climb and reducing thrust to a "quiet EPR" setting well below even the most derated thrust setting allowed by Boeing’s automatic system that increases thrust on the good engine after engine failure. The resulting "flutter falloff" frightened passengers and needlessly put them and the airline’s flight and cabin crews at risk.

In 1990, Adm. James Busey (USN, Ret.) was the FAA Administrator; he and Capt. Adams had been squadron mates during the latter’s second tour on the Oriskany. When Delta management refused to consider other options to the SNA noise abatement departure procedures, Capt. Adams invited his former division leader to ride in a Delta B-757 jumpseat from Salt Lake City to SNA and back.

Seeing the "Santa Ana insanity" from the pilots’ perspective opened Adm. Busey’s eyes. Delta soon adopted a more conservative noise abatement procedure.

The FAA eventually agreed to authorize just two noise abatement departure procedures—a "close in" and a "distant" procedure for reducing noise near the

airport or farther away from the airport, respectively. Finding the 25-degree climb at SNA was a major factor in ALPA’s success in this area after years of effort to return sanity to airport noise abatement.

Swissair 111

In addition to handling the big job of serving as the Delta central air safety chairman, Capt. Adams continued to wear an ALPA beeper as a seasoned accident investigator, having participated in several accident investigations.

Capt. Adams’ wife, Loreen, a portrait artist who has won national awards for her work, will long remember the night of Sept. 2, 1998.

"I came home from a class," she recalls. "Ken had a phone to each ear and was throwing clothes into a suitcase. I said, ‘What is going on?’"

Television had brought terrible news to the Adams’ peaceful home tucked into the woods in the north Georgia hills: Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 carrying 215 passengers and 14 crewmembers, had crashed into the sea near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, killing all aboard.

"Swissair is one of [Delta’s] code-sharing partners," says Capt. Adams. "I realized I was the only member of the [ALPA] Accident Investigation Board qualified on the MD-11. It was going to be a long night."

He didn’t come home until Christmas. After a week off for the holidays, Capt. Adams returned to the field investigation until April 1999.

The Swissair 111 investigation has been exhausting, and it is far from over. Air Line Pilot will publish more about this accident investigation after the Transportation Safety Board publishes its official report on the accident.

For now, however, suffice it to say that Capt. Adams, as the lead International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations accident investigator supported by a dedicated team of Canadian, Swiss, and other U.S. pilots and ALPA staff, has handled with great diplomacy and skill a difficult and draining accident investigation.

To date, the FAA has issued more than 100 airworthiness directives regarding the MD-11 stemming from the preliminary findings of the Swissair 111 accident investigation. Capt. Adams reports, "Swissair management has been very receptive to our recommendations." He also took information about potential problems with aircraft wiring and circuit breakers to Delta management and got the company to change its procedures for resetting popped circuit breakers.


While the Swissair 111 accident investigation is now nearing the 3-year mark for good reasons, Capt. Adams says his biggest frustration during his 15-year career as an ALPA safety activist is "how hard it is to get the FAA to do something.

"FOQA is a perfect example. When I asked Jim Busey to help us out at Orange County regarding noise abatement, I asked him what we might do for him. He wanted our support for FOQA. We were the people he needed to sign on to the program, and we did. Eleven years later, we still don’t have the FOQA protections we need to make the program work."

Under Capt. Adams’ direction, Delta did put a FOQA program in place. Capt. Adams worked with his MEC and Delta management to ensure that the protections for pilots promised in the agreement would be honored. When the FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that did not include the protections, however, Capt. Adams pulled the plug on the program.

On a happier note, Capt. Adams worked with his company and his MEC to establish an ASAP program that he hopes will be an industry-leading program.

"The best way to become a better pilot is to become involved in safety work," Capt. Adams advises. "You get to see everybody else’s mistakes without making them yourself."