(September 2011) With so much commentary on aircraft accidents from analysts, victims, witnesses, psychologists, perpetrators, investigators, manufacturers and Lord knows what other experts (real and self-proclaimed), why two cents’ worth from me? I guess because my commentary is from the perspective of somebody trained and experienced in the investigation side of the business, who’s witnessed more than her share of mishaps (during or shortly after the fact), lived through several and been personally responsible for a few — somebody who thinks she understands pilots, loves all things aeronautical, hates mediocrity as much as bureaucracy and wants flying to be as joyful and “sacred” to every other pilot as it is to her.
When you learn about a smash-up you generally seize on a likely scenario (fuel or stall/spins are generally safe bets), assign blame, murmur “How careless (stupid, criminal, juvenile ... ); I’m glad I’d never do something like that” and get on with life. But the easy and likely explanation isn’t always the truth and never tells the whole story. Early on I heard an NTSB investigator tell reporters at a rather grizzly site that he didn’t allow himself the luxury of judgment even when all signs pointed to the obvious. After 28 years and a fistful of certificates from accident schools, I’ve learned Mr. Santangelo was right. I’ve also come to accept that sometimes the causes — there’s never just one — will forever remain a mystery.
Relax. I’m not going to pontificate about how to “fly right” and be legal, but maybe I can shed a little light on the mechanics of accident investigations and the pecking order — like who’s in charge and what and how things happen.
Unless somebody prangs during an airshow or in front of an FSDO (the latter unlikely since FAA offices have mostly moved off airports), FAA inspectors are rarely on the scene, and by the time they arrive the site’s been pretty well sanitized: the injured or deceased removed by first responders, the fire department cleaning up or gone and the area secured by cops with miles of yellow tape. And the truth is that, if somebody important isn’t involved or the accident doesn’t rate coverage beyond the local news, FAA’s in no big hurry to get there. In the three field offices where I worked, if a call came at night or near the end of normal work hours, inspectors usually waited until the following day, saving the agency overtime and comp time.
Not that anybody ever asked for my opinion, but I believed FAA should be visible, at the scene as soon as possible. But accidents “belong” to the NTSB, so there really isn’t a whole lot FAA inspectors can do on their own. Part of the board’s raison d’être is that “fox guarding the henhouse” thing; the FAA itself might well be part (or all) of the cause. Field office inspectors are trained to investigate the sacred “Nine FAA Responsibilities,” which include the performance, airworthiness or adequacy of FAA facilities or functions, non-FAA-owned and -operated air traffic control facilities, navaids and the FAA itself — certified craft, airmen, air agencies, commercial operators or carriers. They assess if the regulations, airport certification safety standards and security standards were adequate. And finally they determine if the airman had proper medical certification and if there were any violations of the FARs.