Part Two of Three – Government Investigations
In 1974 Congress established the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as an independent government agency, outside of the Department of Transportation and the FAA.
Congress tasked the NTSB with the investigation of civil aircraft accidents and coordination with the military to investigate combined military and civilian aircraft accidents. For military crashes that do not involve a civilian component, the Department of Defense investigates the accidents. While some Department of Defense and NTSB procedures are similar, the military has different rules.
For each investigation, the NTSB assigns an “Investigator In Charge” (also called an IIC). The IIC is a professional who has received NTSB investigation training, but he or she is not required to be a licensed pilot, a mechanic or an engineer.
The most common type of aviation investigations, general aviation investigations, have just one NTSB employee assigned: the IIC.
When the IIC is the only NTSB employee involved in the investigation, he or she applies their general investigation training to the situation. For the detailed technical part of the investigation, the NTSB invites – and relies upon – the manufacturers of the aircraft, the engine and component parts to conduct the investigation. Many people don’t believe me when I tell them that the manufacturers themselves provide the technical expertise behind NTSB investigations but you don’t have to take my word for it, it is in a regulation which says that organizations whose “products were involved in the accident” can provide “suitable qualified technical personnel to actively assist an investigation.” Pilots and their families are almost always excluded from general aviation investigations.
It should be no surprise, then, that the NTSB disproportionately finds fault with pilots and not with aircraft, engines, or component parts. In the latest statistics available, the NTSB (with manufacturer help) has attributed 75% of all fatal general aviation accidents to pilots. It should be less of a surprise, then, that just 15% were attributed to mechanical failures of aircraft, engines or parts. Interestingly, the cause of 10% of fatal accidents were “unknown.” How hard do you think the manufacturers looked to uncover those “unknown” factors?
By law military aircraft crash investigations may also rely upon engineering opinions of product manufacturers, though the military can (but does not always) bring more independent technical expertise to an aircraft accident investigation.
If you think this sounds like the fox guarding the henhouse, you are not the only one. In fact, Congress recognized the potential lopsided investigations and they passed a law that says no part of an NTSB report may be used in a civil litigation. That law is 49 U.S.C. § 1154(b). Similarly, Congress has mandated that a military accident investigators’ opinions about the cause or contributing factors of a military crash are not to be used as evidence in court. That law is 10 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
If you or your family have been affected by an aviation tragedy, your lawyer should know what comes next and how to protect your rights during and after a government investigation.