Aircraft Accidents and Military Investigations

My brother and I were in a play together in high school.  My brother asked my parents if we could host a cast party at the house, “a few people since it was a small cast”.  Closing night, everyone is pumped; my brother, taking a bow, announces to a sold-out audience of 300 that “the cast party is at my house.”  Half of Nassau County, New York’s teenage population descended on my parent’s house, clogging every street within a half-mile circle.  My father glared at me, but I said, “I didn’t invite them to the party.”

In aircraft accident investigation, the term ‘party’ is used, e. g. “a group gathered for a special purpose or task”, not as a social get-together.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) parties are limited to manufacturers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the air operator, etc.; these people are committed to finding probable cause(s).

My good friend asked me why the NTSB isn’t involved in Military accident investigations.  It’s a good question; both the NTSB and the Military investigate accidents involving similar aircraft models and they are both branches of the Federal government.  Or are they?

The Military operates differently when it comes to air transportation, not only for how they transport, but what and who.  What is a ‘Military aviation accident investigation’ (MAAI)?  Would an NTSB and a Military accident be different?  In my opinion, there are three types of Military aircraft: Helicopter, Fixed-Wing, e.g. fighter jet, propeller-driven cargo hauler, trainer, etc. and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).  An MAAI would be one where a Military aircraft is destroyed or damaged, by itself or with another Military aircraft.

What about accidents like National Airlines Flight 102 in Afghanistan?  That accident, and others like it, involved civil aircraft contracted to the Military.  These accidents are investigated by both the NTSB and the Military, albeit not jointly.  The Department of Defense (DoD) investigates why the Military passengers were killed and/or cargo was destroyed; the NTSB and FAA investigate the aircraft and the air operator.  The two investigations may investigate simultaneously or separately, according to time and available resources.  In a case like National 102, however, since the accident occurred on a Military base, the DoD should have been a party to the NTSB investigation for many reasons.  The DoD’s absence resulted in egregious mistakes in the accident report, with important facts overlooked.

Among the reasons the NTSB doesn’t get involved in MAAIs would be: Federal versus State, Cultural Differences, Number of Available Experts, Taxpayer Cost and Military Confidentiality.


Federal versus State:  The Military (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard) is considered a Federal entity.  However, the National Guard is not; they are funded by each individual State; they fall under the authority of the State’s Governor.  Because of this distinction, they are not automatically included in the term, ‘Federal Military’.  Would the NTSB be obligated to respond to a State supported branch?  The NTSB’s involvement would be on a case-by-case basis, but they are not required to act as an investigation party.  Any State could request the NTSB take the lead in investigating or ask the NTSB’s assistance in the investigation. I, personally, never became involved in the decision-making to launch on a State-run aircraft accident, so my personal knowledge of these conditions is limited.

Cultural Differences:  The NTSB is dedicated to investigating civilian accidents.  General Aviation and Commercial Air Operators, e.g. airlines, charters, air taxis, medical helicopters and tourist flights, operate under the FAA’s oversight.  The different branches of the Military have their own aircraft accident investigation groups.  For example, according to his website, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the Captain of US Air Flight 1549, investigated accidents for the U.S. Air Force during his time in the Military.  As a civilian pilot, he was involved in an aircraft accident (US Air 1549), but he didn’t investigate civilian accidents.  An important distinction since there are procedural differences between how the Military and the NTSB investigate.

By comparison, I have investigated many commercial accidents.  Would that qualify me to investigate Military accidents?  No, because I haven’t been exposed to that culture.  Sully could have been investigating commercial accidents for years had he pursued that field because he worked in the commercial aviation industry as a pilot for US Air.  He also could have been investigating Air Force accidents, but not necessarily an accident involving an Army Helicopter or a fighter jet that crashed on a Carrier deck.  Why?  Because each Military branch has its own culture; their own way of doing business; their own procedures that make their missions unique.

The NTSB would not investigate Military accidents, no matter the Branch.  Just as each certificate holder, whether an airline, repair station, aviation school, has a culture, each Military Branch has its own culture.  The values of each organization being investigated plays a pivotal role in fact-finding.  Another important dynamic would be Human Factors issues, again, unique to each certificate holder, as well as each Military Branch.

Number of Available Experts:  The NTSB has a limited number of resources.  Most likely, Military accidents would involve a modest crew.  The NTSB’s major accident investigation groups don’t have numerous investigators standing by, just waiting to launch on a major accident.  Major commercial accidents I’ve worked for the NTSB, those involving two or three pilots, were provided with a minimum number of investigators, even if they were a major airline’s two-pilot, wide-body, cargo aircraft, e.g. Emery Flight 17.

In accidents employing two or three pilots, the NTSB usually assigns a local investigator, one with a heavy workload.  They investigate numerous accidents and write many reports per month.  In that respect, whether commercial or Military, the investigation’s quality would be questionable, the recommendations ineffective.

Taxpayer Cost:  All the NTSB’s expenses are paid by the taxpayer.  This includes travel expenses, e.g. airfare, rental car, fuel, food and hotels; testing components or engine tear-downs at the manufacturer’s facility; interviews and on-site inspections; and the man-hours needed to prepare the final report.  If this service is already being conducted by the Military investigators, the redundancy is unproductive.  The NTSB would not be able to contribute any information to the final reports that would benefit safety.

Military Confidentiality:  This is probably the most decisive argument for why the NTSB does not conduct Military accidents.  Even though the Military operate similar aircraft, albeit the Military version, e.g. a DC-10 is a KC-10 or a B747 is an E-5, that is where the similarity ends.  Much of the aircraft flown by the Military are equipped with avionics and components that aid the aircraft in its mission.  Missile defensive systems, such as composition decoy flares are installed in secrecy; investigating aircraft with these systems may require a security clearance; certainly, the instructions for maintenance or operation are not made public knowledge.  For security reasons alone, the NTSB would be kept away from a Military accident.

Let’s assume an NTSB accident investigator stumbles upon a Military aircraft accident.  The danger to the investigator – or anyone – should not be trivialized.  Unexploded ordinance or pyrotechnic composition decoy flares could cause death and injury to unqualified persons navigating around the wreckage.

The NTSB has earned a place as a leader in accident investigation technologies and procedures.  However, their mission isn’t to direct every accident investigation, indeed, even be a part of every accident investigation.  It’s understandable that they would not, where the Military is concerned, be invited to be a party.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Military Investigations”

  1. Can’t forget ejection seats in a crash. Explosive Ordnance Disposal must be on site to render safe all explosive hazards prior to investigators going down range. I worked three separate F-16 accidents in my 15 years in Army EOD.

    1. Absolutely Mike. I could probably write a list as long as my arm naming off all the safety issues that need to be made safe before investigating a Military accident.

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