It can be easy to brush off certain events as trivial matters that don’t require attention – but when the safety of dozens of airplane passengers was on the line, this NASA engineer decided to speak up.
Rumaasha Maasha was preparing to fly from Huntsville, Alabama to Denver, Colorado back in January when he spotted a fluid leak from his window seat on the wing.
Maasha, who is an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, was able to identify the leak as a malfunctioning vent valve.
“Normally, if it’s a humid day, you’ll see vortices, or circular patterns of rotating air, off the wing,” Maasha said in an interview with NASA. “About 1,000 feet off the ground, I started seeing something white and thought, ‘maybe we’re just hitting some humidity.’ Well, then we banked to turn cross-wind and it was still doing it, and that’s when I knew something was up. I looked closer and immediately realized that we were losing fluid.”
Maasha also knew that as the plane increased in velocity and altitude, the Venturi effect would increase suction on the fuel tank and worsen the leak.
“I quietly motioned to the flight attendant to come over and fortunately she was very attentive,” he said. “She called the crew and the key thing is that she did this as we were still climbing out. Within a minute or two, they reduced speed and leveled off. The fuel leak diminished immediately when they slowed down.”
Much to the irritation of the passengers, the plane returned to the Huntsville airport; but upon finding out the reason for the return – and the hero behind its occurrence – Maasha made quite a few new friends amongst his fellow passengers.
According to his employer, Maasha’s experience with NASA wasn’t the only thing that came in handy that day, either; the engineer first became obsessed with aviation as a teenager growing up near an airport in Monrovia, Liberia.
Determined to pursue his dream, Maasha started attending Columbia University at just 15 years old. Then, he got a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Even though he wasn’t able to find a job in his field at the time, he got his pilot’s license and worked various jobs amongst different airlines and the FAA. In 2004, he was finally offered a job with NASA as a civil servant.
“Looking back, I guess I had the perfect sets of circumstances to recognize the issue that day,” he said. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always tried to sit in a window seat near the wing. That’s not the first time I’ve noticed something. I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
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