‘Aviation Safety Always’ – Speedy Accident Investigations Essential, Expert Says

Plane flies past the setting sun

As a result of the recent partial U.S. government shutdown, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was unable to dispatch investigators to 15 new aviation accidents.

In addition, when 90 percent of the NTSB’s staff members were furloughed because of the shutdown, work stopped on 1,815 ongoing general aviation and limited aviation safety investigations, the agency reported. For example, news accounts noted, “A small plane crash in Michigan that killed the 83-year-old pilot was left untouched for days until investigators arrived.” 

What happens when aviation accident investigations are delayed? 

Anthony Brickhouse, associate professor of Aerospace and Occupational Safety and manager of the Aerospace Forensics Laboratory at Embry-Riddle, said that aviation safety can be compromised if accident investigations are postponed. 

During the shutdown, he noted, local law-enforcement officials, coroners and medical examiners would have been called to assess any serious aviation accident scenes. Wreckage would have been removed to a hangar or another secure location. Key evidence, from fuel leaks to switch positions and instrument readings, can be destroyed or damaged if investigations are delayed, he said; even the relocation of wreckage can jeopardize evidence if it is not properly handled. 

Making matters worse, Brickhouse said, many Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, who could have helped with some of the accident investigations, were also furloughed. “The NTSB doesn’t go to every single accident site,” he explained. “Sometimes, the FAA sends an inspector, but they know what types of photos to take and evidence to collect. With the shutdown, the FAA didn’t go, the NTSB didn’t go, and local law-enforcement are not going to gather evidence in the same way, no matter how conscientious they may be.” 

In any accident investigation, Brickhouse said, “You want to learn what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent it from happening again. It’s like putting a puzzle back together. When we don’t get a chance to physically see the crash site and the wreckage, that can impede our understanding of what happened.” 

Brickhouse emphasized, however, that he’s confident Embry-Riddle alumnus Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, together with top NTSB leadership and management, had contingency plans in place during the government shutdown. 

“As a safety professional, I don’t use the phrase, 'safety first’ – I say 'safety always,’ and to accomplish that, ideally in a perfect world, NTSB investigators would continue to function even during a government shutdown,” Brickhouse said. “With that said, I’m confident in the leadership of NTSB Chairman Sumwalt, his fellow Board members, and his team of outstanding investigators, engineers and support staff.”

Editorial Note: The Managing Director of the NTSB, Dennis Jones, is also an Embry-Riddle alumnus, who was profiled in the fall 2018 edition of Embry-Riddle’s Lift magazine.