Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are continuing their investigation of a May 10, 2010 plane crash in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Killed in the crash of the 2005 Cirrus SR-22 aircraft were Mark Hiram Yellen and Dr. Paula Moffett. The couple was landing at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport to visit Dr. Moffet’s daughter who is a student at The University of Alabama. There was no immediate explanation of why the single-engine prop plane crashed.
The Cirrus SR-22 is a four-seater and has been one of the world’s best-selling single-engine aircraft for several years. From January 15, 2005 through March 21, 1010 the National Transportation and Safety Board lists a total of 81 crashes in the Cirrus SR-22. Forty-three crashes were non-fatal; 38 were fatal with a total of 78 fatalities as per the NTSB.
What Happens After an Aircraft Crashes
In the United States in wake of an aviation crash, while families and loved ones are attempting to piece together the reality of a tragedy that has befallen them, an investigation is initiated calling on both State and Federal assets to attempt to preserve and explain the events giving rise to an accident or incident.
Generally in any aviation crash, whether fatalities are involved or not, local law enforcement will be the first on the scene. If, as is often the case with catastrophic events, there is a post crash fire, hazmat, medical, and fire first responders may also be called into the event. The first priority of any and all first responders will be the rescue and or protection of survivors, whether in the aircraft or on the ground. We in this country are fortunate to have a superlative community of first responders across our land working often as volunteers and, more often than not, risking their lives to save others. Occasionally, however on “off airport” crashes in an appropriate effort to protect the lives of others, some evidence may be damaged in the process of salvage. It is the job of first local law enforcement, then the designated federal agency to protect and preserve all evidence related to the crash once immediate dangers to passengers, crew, and the public have been brought under control.
In the U.S., the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) has ultimate authority for the investigation of air crashes (as well as other transportation crashes both land and maritime). For an explanation of the Statutes and Regulations under which the NTSB is authorized and organized, you may go to www.ntsb.gov and follow the links for citations and fuller explanations. The NTSB is an organization comprised of exceptional experts in a multitude of disciplines, including, but not limited to, maintenance, piloting, human factors, aerospace medicine, design, manufacturing, and air traffic control. Despite a high degree of competence in their respective fields the good men and women of the NTSB are forced to cover much of the globe in their investigations and are unfortunately shorthanded, and often underfunded. Even with these challenges, however, we can all be proud that the United States hosts the finest aviation accident investigation body in the world. As a result of the NTSB’s mandate to cover a myriad of transportation accidents, they often are called to rely on local Federal Aviation Administrative (FAA) personnel to assist in performing the investigations.
In larger air disasters a “go-team” will be sent to the site and an Investigator In Charge (or IIC) shall be appointed to establish separate working groups each with an expert in the groups’ “field” to provide individual reports which are then compiled into a larger report to be presented to the board in a public hearing. In smaller, though not less important, general aviation crashes, often there will be one or two investigators who, while calling on the resources of the NTSB, will likely be tasked with running the investigation on their own.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the limited resources of the NTSB is the requirement of reliance on “party participants.” Party participants are the manufacturers, component part suppliers, and or operators who are charged with assisting the NTSB in their investigation of a crash. The difficulty with this system, and indeed the irony of it, is that if often calls on the manufacturer of a particular airplane to determine if “they” did anything wrong. For example in an engine inspection, the NTSB will, more often than not, send the engine “home” to the manufacturer for the manufacturer to run tests on the product and determine if there is anything defective in its design or function. While, certainly the NTSB monitors these investigations, the concept of the group designing and building the product being asked to expose themselves to liability by confessing some wrong doing has often puzzled observers and experts.
This is one of the reasons why it is important for the families to seek representation in order that their rights protected. Several years ago, in the wake of a string of aviation crashes, the NTSB enacted the Victims Family Assistance Act to provide a platform and a voice for those who had, by design had no voice before. A full explanation of this Act may be found at www.ntsb.gov under the Aviation Tab. This act provides that family members shall be given updates and access to some parts of the investigation, and was a major step in helping protect the rights of victims’ families to access to information.
At the conclusion of an investigation two reports shall have been produced. One report, THE FACTUAL REPORT, will contain pertinent facts regarding the circumstances and history of the crash. The other report, THE FINAL REPORT or THE PROBABLE CAUSE REPORT will contain the factual report with the addition of a statement from the NTSB regarding what they believe MAY have been the cause of the crash. The Probable Cause as put forth by the NTSB is NOT admissible in a court of law, and is most often not specific enough to be determinative of the actual cause of a crash.
As with any investigation, the most important first step is to safeguard the evidence, and make sure that it remains intact and unchanged until professional investigators can have an opportunity to look with an objective eye, at all the possible causes of a crash. Manufacturers and operators of aircraft are investigating with their own set of agenda’s present, and while we would hope that we existed in a world where those involved in the operation, design, and maintenance of dangerous equipment would be capable of focusing solely on safety, occasionally self interest, and economic gain overcome the “better angels” of man’s nature. It is for these reasons, that it is important to retain experts in the field, early, in order to protect the rights of those who may no longer be able to protect themselves.
While the above brief description of a crash investigation is not sufficient to outline the good work and effort of or Federal Investigators and local law enforcement, nor provide a full outline of what an investigation should entail, it is a good point of departure for further in depth discussion of what is an important and continuing effort, on behalf of all who fly, to see that we continue to lead the world in aviation safety.