The recent disappearance, and presumed crash, of the Malaysia Airlines aircraft over the South China Sea has set in motion an investigation even before the plane has been found. Globally investigators are preparing to head to the command center once it is set up, and the work of determining what happened will begin. The investigation team’s findings will be compiled into a report which may lead to improved safety measures.
Statistically, there is one airplane accident for every 1.4 million flights. To put it into terms that can be more easily grasped, a person could fly daily for over 3,800 years without being experiencing a single aircraft accident. The apparent Malaysia Airlines is only the second one in 20 years involving the oriental airline.
Air travel is the safest form of public transportation available today. Thanks mainly to accident investigations, improvements in safety are being made regularly. Findings from one accident are incorporated into changes to aviation which lead to safer planes and procedures. Pilot duties and the problem of pilot fatigue are just two of the more recent issues addressed which came from post-accident investigations.
Looking at the accident investigation operation on paper makes it appear fairly simple and straightforward. The reality is that investigations are often hampered by things like political considerations, lawsuits and differences between nations. Other things such as a rugged terrain and post-accident weather damage can hinder the investigation. When planes crash into deep water, as it appears the Malaysia Airlines has, circumstances can be much more difficult.
Every country has its own organization which conducts accident investigations. Regardless of which country the accident occurred in, there is always a IIC, Investigator in Charge, of total supervision of the investigation. In the investigation that follows the suspected crash of the Malaysia Airlines, authorities will share responsibility because of the suspected crash site.
In the US, the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, is the premier investigator of aircraft accidents. Investigating all accidents involving American aircraft, the NTSB is frequently called on to aid in foreign accident investigation.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, doesn’t have any governing power, but it does take information from investigatory agencies and produces suggestions for changes in benchmarks and procedures that are usually followed when accidents involve two or more countries.
Many Americans think that the FAA should be in charge of accident investigations. FAA’s involvement is limited to determining if any regulations were ignored and to follow-up with any legal action that may be required.
Since the NTSB can’t investigate every accident in detail, accidents have to be categorized, or “triaged,” according to priority. Accidents involving aircraft are divided into categories from “Major Investigation” to “Limited Investigation.” A major investigation would include airline crashes, aircraft accidents involving important people or crashes that may be the result of terrorism. A limited investigation generally involves lighter aircraft accidents such as “fender benders” between two or more planes on the ground.
At the Scene
If the accident is a major one, the IIC will initiate a “Go-Team.” Normally including predetermined people to respond to an accident, the go-team includes the IIC, a board member from the NTSB and other needed specialists as determined by the type of accident. Early Sunday morning, the US has already announced its go-team members are on their way to help in the investigation of the Malaysia Airlines disaster.
When the crash site is identified and investigators are present, the first priority is giving aid to any people involved. Then the wreckage is documented and preserved. Often much of the wreckage is packaged and sent to a lab for further examination.
Steps are taken to safeguard the wreckage so that hazardous material and other dangers are minimized. When the site, and wreckage, is secure, investigators are free to work within their speciality.
Findings and Reports
After all of the work in the field is completed, investigators return to their offices to prepare written reports of their findings. Each organization involved in the investigation drafts its findings and submits it to the NTSB. The NTSB reviews each one and compiles its own investigation report. Eventually, often years after an accident, the report is finalized and released to the public.
When released, the reports are used throughout the aviation industry. The reports usually include safety recommendations which can move organizations to take action, further reducing accidents and saving more lives. Meanwhile, government, military and civilian planes and ships are scouring the South China Sea for remains of the Malaysia Airlines that appears to have gone down Saturday.
By Jerry Nelson