Learning about NTSB accident investigation from the investigators themselves

Seeking to inform the aviation community about their accident investigation process, the NTSB has launched a new blog series.

There is a great deal of pilot anxiety surrounding reports and investigations, whether done by the FAA or NTSB. No one wants to find out that an aviation accident or incident could have been preventable if they had made different, knowable choices. But the NTSB wants to alleviate some of that anxiety by lifting the curtain on the processes, reasoning, methods, and decision-making that go into their investigation. To that end, they have launched a new official blog series explaining the work that goes into each investigation, straight from the keyboards of the people conducting each aspect.

The first of these posts hails from NTSB member Earl F. Weener and gives a thorough overview of the NTSB’s motivation behind creating such a blog series, as well as its goals in conducting investigations in general. While it’s one thing to read their official statements about seeking to lower the overall accident numbers and increase safety, it’s quite another to hear it from an individual member speaking openly about his work. His account provides a perspective on the passion, detail, and dedication of those who perform NTSB investigations, and opens a window as to why the process is so lengthy.

NTSB Accident Investigation

The introduction highlights three factors to each accident: human, machine, and environment, and the follow-up post goes into further detail about the first: the human factor. Dr. Nicholas Webster, an NTSB Medical Officer, fills us in on the specifics of what he looks for when investigating the human component of any accident or incident. He offers two examples of recent cases where both machine and environment appeared to be perfectly cooperative, leaving the human factor as the only feasible place for something to have gone wrong. His detailed account of the investigation again offers perspective on the immense work of each moving part of the NTSB, including how well they take into account as many possibilities for error as they can.

What both accounts do well to emphasize is the NTSB’s focus on offering recommendations to prevent future accidents. Rather than an agency of blame or punishment, the NTSB pursues the information necessary to create safer future outcomes. Speaking to this is a statistic provided by Mr. Weener: “of the more than 14,500 safety recommendations issued in our 50-year history, more than 80 percent are acted upon favorably.”

There are many reasons that aviation is safer than ever before in recent years, including improved technology and research methods, better science, and improved training. But it’s clear from this blog that the NTSB’s recommendations are a huge part of that improved safety record. Their blog provides a stark contrast from the dry accident reports published a year or more after any event. Consider keeping an eye on this blog series as it concludes, as well as on future NTSB publications and recommendations that may apply to your operation. A closer look at NTSB methods, safety recommendations, and reports can help all members of the aviation community better understand how accidents happen, and can help prevent them in the future.

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