Aircraft Accidents and Helicopter Investigations

You know, you can always tell the non-headquarters (Washington, DC) NTSB investigators; they wear the NTSB jacket, hat, and shirt as if it forgives them the cover charge at Billy-Bob’s Pizza and Barbeque. I wore my NTSB outfit at an accident site one time – one time – and the FBI chief told me to, “take that [stuff] off; you look like an idiot.”
I’m not trying to disparage a fellow agent of safety, nor would I ever trivialize or sensationalize the tragedy of lives lost. But in this world of 24/7 news and fast service one must understand the difference between the Headquarters’ investigators and those in the ‘field offices’.
A friend of mine sent me an article about a recent sight-seeing helicopter crash; the lead investigator spoke about the NTSB having results ‘within a year’. A year? The helicopter in question crashed in an accessible area, a model that is fairly common, one engine, inspected regularly under a standard maintenance program, the pilot well-trained and current. At most an investigation like this should take one week to analyze and finalize the report, recommendations submitted, case closed.
I’ve sat in on headquarters meetings where the topic of whether to investigate or not depended on numbers, specifically victim numbers. Unless you were JFK Junior or a US Senator, the numbers would dictate the need for an investigation. A cargo airliner, for instance, means a crash only claims two to three pilots so we’ll give it the least effort as possible – as will the media. Unless the cargo 747 pancakes in on a crowded interstate or flies through a warehouse, the media won’t care. So why should we?
But let’s be fair, the ‘field offices’ are not under the same schedule that the wonder boys and girls at headquarters are under – the field is much more demanding. Many NTSB field folks I knew came straight out of school, private pilot license ink still wet; they are thrown into a world with neither the experience to know true from false, the knowledge to know analog from digital, or the training to know GA from airline. They work with manufacturer reps who could sell ashes to the devil and are intent on protecting their company. Their Inbox looks like the Tower of Pisa and is probably stacked just as high. And nine out of ten wouldn’t know a helicopter from an egg beater.
A year? It’s not surprising nor is it cynical to say that we look at the media’s reporting of, e.g. Germanwing’s 9535 and FlyDubai 981 and we say, “Oh no, the press has said the pilot was suicidal, used poor judgment, or on drugs; the aircraft was dangerous, the media said so and if you can’t trust the media …
My question is: How did the media get hold of that information in the first place?
What I will say about the field investigators is they show better discretion than the headquarters wonder children. Maybe they don’t show good fashion sense, but they are steadfast; they are not as quick to judgment and certainly treat the victims as … victims, not a number. And they do the best job with what their limited experience gives them. A year is still way too long; maybe headquarters should lend them a hand.

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