Why U.S. Airmen Should be Grateful for the NTSB

By Robert Mark on April 2nd, 2015

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Why U.S. Airmen Should be Grateful for the NTSB

Podcast Text — Last week’s crash in the French Alps raised a number of issues, like how the young pilot accused of the tragedy managed to keep his health issues hidden from his employer, how few airlines outside the US. bring another employee into the cockpit when one pilot must leave and of course how, or if, pilots can even be allowed to fly if they’re suffering from any mental health issues. There is one item that wasn’t mentioned though, at least not directly … the differences between how aircraft accidents like these are investigated here in the US versus other parts of the world.

NTSBIn the United States, our National Transportation Safety Board has spoiled us, in a good way. The NTSB is, of course, an independent federal agency established outside the Dept. of Transportation and answering only to Congress. Since the NTSB was crated back in 1926, the agency and its predecessors have investigated some 132,000 aviation accidents.

But back to the Alps. The first comments about the Germanwings crash were released by French Prosecutors. The French BEA, their equivalent of our NTSB, was sent to the accident site, but have not been heard from.

In Europe and other parts of the world, prosecutors being first to the microphone are not all that unusual because their motives are different from ours. Here, the NTSB searched for a cause, with the hopes of preventing a similar incident. Elsewhere it doesn’t work quite the same. When a business jet crashed into a snowplow on takeoff from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport last year, the Russians quickly arrested the snowplow driver as well as the tower controllers.

Outside the US, aircraft accidents are often seen as criminal events first, hence the need to find the culprit. Prosecutors are more like cops to me. They want a bad guy and within a very short period of time following the Germanwings crash, they pinned it on the co-pilot.

But let me be clear … I’m not saying the co-pilot is not responsible for the accident. What I’m saying is that there is so much work yet to be done, so many more pieces of the crash to be investigated that I’m appalled at the direction the media coverage has taken.

In a number of interviews, Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr repeated that the event was a one-off, making the chances of another like it quite slim. Our White House also strangely chimed in just hours aftgermanwings a320er the crash explaining it didn’t appear to be a terrorist event. Now how could they possibly know that for certain just hours after the crash?

There are so many unanswered questions, like if the co-pilot is responsible, why did he do it? Why does there appear to have been no post-impact fire? What mental health issues was the pilot actually suffering from? How much did the airline really know and when? What else was happening on-board the aircraft before the accident? We only have reports of a few select bits of the cockpit voice recording. We haven’t even located the flight data recorder, and no one’s even asking about it any longer.

When I read comments from the Lufthansa people, they sounded more like a corporate defense strategy than facts surrounding an accident investigation.

A few days after the crash, many airlines decided it was time to place someone else in the cockpit – like a flight attendant – when the other pilot leaves. So that just about covers it I guess. If the pilot hadn’t been alone, the crash would not have happened. We’ve located the problem, the bad guy is dead anyway, so let’s move on.

Ask yourself how the same crash would have been handled in the U.S. I doubt you’d see an airline CEO on TV offering the media their selection of details aimed at keeping the company out of hot water.

We airmen here in the U.S. should be extremely grateful for the existence of the NTSB, a group focused on investigating every last bit of evidence before determining a probable cause. Other airmen around the world – pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers – can only dream of such an organization in their countries. And the people dreaming the most are those people still sitting in jails around the world.

From Chicago, I’m Rob Mark. See you next time.

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3 Responses to “Why U.S. Airmen Should be Grateful for the NTSB”

  1. toffer Says:

    Care to comment on how US television news channels handle aviation accidents, Rob?

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Doubt I’d give any of them much more than a D+ to be honest.

    Of course I simply want to tell a story about a very specific situation here. The news channels need to fill the viewer’s screen 24 hours a day seven days a week.

    My guess is that forces them to look behind every unturned rock all day, every day.

    Under those demands, these stories quickly evolve from basic news to entertainment designed to keep people in front of their TVs, even if that means finding experts to answer the same question 20 times a day.

  3. Oleg Melnikov Says:

    Proper airport name is Vnukovo – not Vunukovo.
    (IATA: VKO, ICAO: UUWW)

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