Aerophobics Beware! The Skies Are Safe.

Sophisticated Accident Investigations and Training Reinforce Safety in the Skies.

Despite a couple recent mishaps while landing, commercial air travel is still statistically the safest form of travel. U.S. airlines did not have a single fatality last year. It was the third time in the past four years there were no deaths, continuing a dramatic trend toward safer skies.

According to the FAA, the number of fatal GA accidents has dropped over the past decade as well, highlighting that improvements in aircraft design, construction and safety go further than in just commercial operations. Though GA operations, statistically, result in more accidents per flight hour, the aviation community as a whole is experiencing safer skies.

This is in part because of data collected during accident investigations. The office of Accident Investigations and Prevention is the principal organization within the FAA with respect to aircraft accident investigations and all activities of the NTSB. Their mission is to make safety enhancements to aviation safety by identifying hazards, evaluating risks and monitoring the effectiveness of risk mitigation.

One way their mission is accomplished is by studying data collected during accident investigations. Following a plane crash, many people work together to determine probable causes so that future accidents can be minimized. Representatives from the aircraft manufacturer, along with local law enforcement, the FBI, airport officials, witnesses, survivors of the crash and aviation experts weigh in on the NTSB-run investigation. The entire process often takes weeks, months or years to complete. In many cases the airplane must be put together piece by piece like a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

In an effort to reopen runways as quickly as possible and to protect evidence from a plane crash site, the wreckage is moved into a hangar for reassembly and data collection. Nearly one week after Asiana Airlines flight 214 that crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport was hauled to a storage area on airport property. From there, the NTSB scoured the wreckage and made a determination as to what would be taken to labs in Washington, D.C., for continued investigation and what would be turned over to the insurance companies for salvage. Often wreckage is kept secured for years in case of lawsuits and future investigations.

How does the NTSB decide where wreckage will be sent? It’s often the result of what makes the most sense logistically. Hangars are often leased at the airport closest to the crash site.

Much of the wreckage recovered with the TWA 800 disaster, for example, is currently kept in a FAA facility in Virginia mainly for training crash investigators. Initially, however, the remains were partially reassembled and kept in a former Grumman/Republic company hanger in Long Island for the initial investigations.

In most cases the remains of crashed aircraft, after investigations and civil ligation claims are resolved are scrapped out for their metal and critical components. In the past, some usable and undamaged parts from crashed aircraft are used for parts for other aircraft. Some aircraft remains or critical parts where there was failures may be kept by investigative agencies or aircraft manufactures for research and training.

The Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) is the world-renowned branch of The Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) and is internationally recognized for its training and remains on the cutting-edge of global aviation safety through best practices, new technologies, and up-to-date teaching techniques. The Aviation Safety program at TSI trains nearly 2,000 aviation safety professionals from Federal, state, local, and international governments; private industry; and the military each year.

The new training facility will benefit students of about 10 TSI Aviation Safety courses in the near term. For example, TSI’s Basic Aircraft Accident training course, as well as a similar one in Basic Helicopter Accident investigation, is a detailed 8-day course of study that has until now been held primarily in a classroom building with two excursions to the TSI accident investigation training laboratory. The new facility promises to transform that teaching format. Students can now look forward to a more hands-on training experience, with the ability to incorporate more diagramming skills, to make more immediate connections between course content and tangible examples.

Studying accidents and scouring debris fields for clues and causes has played a significant part in the reduction of aircraft accidents, both commercial and general aviation. Training investigators to look for key factors is an integral part of the process. Because of technology and commitment to safety, we can celebrate safer skies now and in the future.