A plane crashes – now what? A look inside an NTSB investigation

They look at the human, the machine, and the environment.
Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 2:12 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - In 2019, a Nevada couple was killed when a small aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff near the Indianapolis regional airport.  The cause of that crash was pilot error.

In 2018, two people were killed in a train derailment west of Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The cause of the accident was likely break failure.

Three employees of a Missouri duck-boat company were charged with involuntary manslaughter after 17 people were killed in one of the deadliest tour boat accidents in US history.  The initial cause of the boat sinking was a rare weather event, and vulnerabilities with the craft that made it susceptible to taking on water.

All of these causes were determined by comprehensive investigations by the NTSB.

“A goal is to determine what caused the crash and possibly make safety recommendations to prevent it from happening again,” explains Keith Holloway with the NTSB.

Holloway says investigators are on scene within three days. During that time, they comb the area, gathering as much evidence as they can.

“They will request radar data, weather information, the maintenance records, the information about the pilots. They medical background, the pilots, the flight history of the pilot, things like that,” said Holloway.

They will also look into air traffic control communications, possible mayday calls, and eye witness accounts.  When all the initial evidence is gathered, they issue a preliminary report.

“the main thing that the investigators look into is the human, the machine, and the environment,” says Holloway.

During the next 12 to 24 for months, they compile their final report.  This includes sending forensic evidence back to the lab in Washington, sometimes requiring full reconstruction of an aircraft.

For aviation expert Paul Stone, who worked with the NASA Apollo Gemini program in the ‘60s, it’s a painstaking process that contributes to the greater good of safe air travel.

“Everything they do in the airline industry is just headed towards safety.  So it’s come a long ways Continues to go that way,” said Stone.

Currently, commercial air travel is one of the safest means of transportation.  The US hasn’t seen a major airline crash since 2009.