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NTSB Airplane or Helicopter Accident Investigations

The National Transportation Safety Board was created in 1967 to investigate major accidents in all modes of transportation. Among the duties they are responsible for are conducting the investigation of all civil aviation accidents in the United States. When the investigation is complete the NTSB issues a ruling of probable cause and safety recommendations.

So how does the investigation process work?

When an accident happens there are several things that must be preserved immediately for investigation into the accident. Loss or alteration of this evidence can be detrimental when trying to determine probable cause and make safety recommendations. That is why almost immediately the NTSB will be on their way to the scene to start the investigation. The NTSB will first assemble a “Go Team”, and appoint an experienced investigator that will head the investigation. One of the five Members of the Safety Board will also go with the team to the accident site and serves as the spokesperson. These “Go Teams” are made up of specialized members who have vast knowledge in each area of the accident that will need to be investigated. The team will range from three, to more than a dozen members, depending on the circumstances of the accident. The “Go Team” will then travel to the accident scene and begin collecting information.

The location the accident takes place is important to whether or not the NTSB will be the investigating party.  “Go Teams” are only sent to accidents that happen on US territory or international waters. If the accident is not within that geography, then the investigation is left up to the government where the accident took place. However, if a US carrier or US manufactured plane is involved in the accident, the NTSB will send an Investigator In Charge (but not a go-team) to assist in the investigation.

The areas of the NTSB investigation will be divided up into subcommittees with each member working in their specialized field. These areas as defined by the NTSB are as follows:

OPERATIONS: The history of the accident flight and crewmembers' duties for as many days prior to the crash as appears relevant.

STRUCTURES: Documentation of the airframe wreckage and the accident scene, including calculation of impact angles to help determine the plane's pre-impact course and attitude.

POWERPLANTS: Examination of engines (and propellers) and engine accessories.

SYSTEMS: Study of components of the plane's hydraulic, electrical, pneumatic and associated systems, together with instruments and elements of the flight control system.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Reconstruction of the air traffic services given the plane, including acquisition of ATC radar data and transcripts of controller-pilot radio transmissions.

WEATHER: Gathering of all pertinent weather data from the National Weather Service, and sometimes from local TV stations, for a broad area around the accident scene.

HUMAN PERFORMANCE: Study of crew performance and all before-the-accident factors that might be involved in human error, including fatigue, medication, alcohol. Drugs, medical histories, training, workload, equipment design and work environment.

SURVIVAL FACTORS: Documentation of impact forces and injuries, evacuation, community emergency planning and all crash-fire-rescue efforts.

These subcommittees will stay at the scene as long as it takes until their portion of the investigation has been completed. As mentioned earlier, one of the five Members of the Safety Board also goes with the team to the accident site and serves as the spokesperson. It is this prominent member that will brief the media on the discovery of information. These briefings can be expected at least once a day, or as information becomes available. A public affairs official will also be there to monitor what information is put forth, as it is very important only factual information get released to the public. 

Certain parts of the investigation will be moved to different locations to continue the collection of information as the scene is cleaned up. The collected information is then taken back to the NTSB headquarters where all the information is compiled to make their final recommendations. The drafted report that goes to the board can take anywhere from 12-18 months after the accident to be issued. However, important and urgent safety recommendations will be issued whenever the NTSB sees fit. It is important to remember that while the job of the NTSB is to collect the information and make the decision of probable cause, they have no regulatory or enforcement powers.

Curry, Pearson & Wooten, PLC represents aviation accident victims worldwide.

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