Who Are Air Crash Investigators?
When it comes to planning investigations into major aeroplane crashes such as Lockerbie in 1988, the Madrid crash in August 2008 or the Chicago O’Hare crash from 1979, all of which involved a tremendous loss of life, nothing can be left to chance.
In the UK, aeroplane crashes come under the domain of The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which is responsible for the investigation of civil aircraft accidents and serious incidents within the UK. They are also often called upon to assist in military incidents as well as aviation accidents overseas, especially where British registered planes are involved. Their aim is to respond quickly to air accidents and serious incidents and lead and manage the accident investigation team. On their website, the AAIB stress that the aim of an investigation is ‘to improve aviation safety by determining the causes of air accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence - it is not to apportion blame or liability.’
After a crash has happened the AAIB will appoint an Inspector of Air Accidents or the Investigator-in-Charge to oversee the investigation. The Inspector of Air Accidents has legal powers, but must work closely with the Police and Emergency Services. Just some of the powers they have are: free access to the aircraft wreckage and its contents; immediate access to flight recorders and the ability to take sworn statements from those involved or eye witnesses. They also have the authority to impound an aircraft if they believe it is necessary for the success of the investigation.
The Investigator-in-Charge will assemble a team of investigators and decide which specialist working groups are required and will co-ordinate and direct the efforts of the groups.
Meet the Go Team
Aside from the danger of toxic parts, falling wreckage and fire hazards, another major danger for air crash investigators is the risk of being exposed to disease from bloodborne pathogens. Bloodborne pathogens are viruses, bacteria, and parasites that are present in the blood, tissue, or other body fluids of infected persons.
They could include, but are not limited to the hepatitis B and C virus (HBV) and HIV, which causes AIDS. Some of these viruses do not die upon contact with oxygen or when the fluids dry out. Studies, in fact, show that certain climatic conditions may prolong the infectiousness of HIV.
Therefore those working in or around the wreckage of a crash site, particularly in countries or regions of the world where infectious diseases are more common, must use extreme caution to minimize direct contact with bloodborne viruses. The National Transport Safety Bureau in the US states that at a minimum, heavy leather work gloves over non-permeable rubber gloves should be used, also stressing that when investigators are likely to come into contact with blood or human remains, full face masks, protective goggles, and disposable overalls and boots must be worn.
The speed with which investigators can get to the scene of a disaster is crucial in helping to pinpoint the cause of a plane crash, which is why lead investigators are on-call for immediate assignment.
The National Transport Safety Bureau in the US refers to their standby team as the ‘Go Team,’ while the AAIB in the UK refers to it somewhat less glamorously as the ‘Field’ team, they are both essentially the same - a team of investigation specialists on hand to co-ordinate the investigation of an aeroplane crash.
On major crashes there could be more than 100 people with expert knowledge required, with representatives from numerous agencies, government departments and international specialists all called in to help.
Typically, a full Go Team may consist of the following specialists: air traffic control, operations, meteorology, human performance, structures, systems, powerplants, maintenance records, survival factors, aircraft performance, cockpit voice recorder (CVR), flight data recorder (FDR), and metallurgy experts.
In the United Kingdom the AAIB team may also include a medical adviser. This person is usually, but not exclusively, a specialist in aviation pathology seconded from the RAF because, the AAIB argue, it is important for the pathologist dealing with an air accident to have knowledge of aviation and aviation medicine so as to not miss any vital evidence that could be crucial to an investigation.
Additional groups may be formed to interview witnesses, examine the response of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) personnel, or other duties, as required, to support the investigation. In addition to these experts, the lead air crash investigator will often also call in experts from the plane operating company, aircraft manufacturer and powerplant manufacturers, so that they can assist in any detailed technical issues raised.
A good example of a plane manufacturer’s effectiveness in helping to solve the cause of a plane crash can be seen in the crash that killed rising R&B star Aaliyah in 2001. In the immediate aftermath investigators were unsure what caused the crash, however, when the number of passengers on board was revealed – nine, plus lots of additional baggage – the manufacturers of the Cessna 402B plane revealed that the plane was only licensed to carry between six and eight people, including a pilot.
Are Air Crash Investigators Ever at Risk Themselves?
Typically, air craft investigators arrive at the scene a short time after the emergency services, which face a far greater risk. Air Crash Investigators do not approach the site until all survivors – if any – have been recovered from the wreckage. However, there are some risks involved when conducting an investigation into a plane crash. Those involved in the recovery, examination, and documentation of wreckage may find themselves exposed to physical risk from such things as hazardous cargo, flammable or toxic materials and vapours, sharp or heavy objects, pressurized equipment, and even disease. Typically, a member of the investigation team – in conjunction with other agencies at the scene, such as police and fire departments, will conduct a safety analysis before allowing additional people onto the crash site – if the risks are deemed too high then the site remains out of bounds for investigators.