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Crash Detectives: Becoming an Aviation Accident Investigator

Aviation accident investigators are specialized detectives who get to the bottom of airplane crashes. But they don't stop at planes -- or crashes. Their investigations could include everything from commercial airlines to helicopters, gliders and hot air balloons. They investigate anything involving aircraft that could put people at risk.

Their mission is to find out what went wrong to cause the problem. They do not try to find fault or blame. They investigate the scene and continue specialized investigations in offices, labs and overhaul facilities until they determine what happened. Then they make recommendations to help reduce future risk. They report their findings to the public.

"What you see on TV shows like CSI -- we do all that stuff. But for the police and us, what they show you in an hour on TV takes us a year," says Bill Yearwood. He is the manager of a government aviation accident investigation team.

The next generation of aviation accident investigators will have to be technologically savvy in addition to having a well-rounded resume of flight experience.

Aviation technology is constantly evolving. New technology brings new challenges for investigators. Also, as the aviation industry continues to grow, it looks for ways to save money.

"The industry is also realizing that it is more cost-effective to prevent accidents rather than reacting to those that have already happened," says George Carney. He is an air accident investigator for the British army.

The challenge of technology

Do aviation accident investigators have a James Bond-like secret basement of cool technological devices?

"I wish!" says Zoe Keliher. She is an aviation accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "It's government -- there's no way we get that."

However, Keliher does need to keep up with the latest technology used in the air in order to understand it when she's investigating. She is a young investigator and says that gives her an advantage when dealing with technology.

"I have such fluidity with the computer, software and digital cameras," she says. Older workers may face more of a learning curve when dealing with new devices and software.

Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs), also known as black boxes (even though they are red), may help investigators. But they are not always reliable and not always recovered after a crash.

Investigators must use other tactics, including the latest technology, such as inertial navigation (a computer navigation helper that tracks without external references). Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are also becoming common tools for investigators.

"The use of GPS for plotting wreckage is also fairly advanced, as is the use of simulation methods to recreate the flight of a crashed aircraft following downloads of FDR and CVR information," says Carney.

Opportunities within investigation departments exist for workers with backgrounds in information technology. They are needed to discover innovative ways of getting information from damaged black boxes.

"Whenever there is a major improvement in technology, there is an increased risk of incidents or accidents, and therefore the need for investigators will always remain," says Carney.

For example, NASA has designed an Intelligent Flight Control System. Simply put, this system imitates the human mind and uses that process in flight control software.

The system enables pilots to stay in control and safely land an aircraft -- even if the control surface failed or the airframe was damaged. These types of problems affect the stability of the aircraft, and a traditional pilot would be doomed. However, the control system can quickly figure out what's happening and help the pilot control the aircraft.

Where the opportunities exist

In addition to government-sponsored accident investigators, like those at the NTSB, similar positions exist with the U.S. air force. There are also opportunities with airlines.

Airline safety departments have their own investigators who often work with government teams at the scenes of accidents. Airline-employed accident investigators work within airline companies and carry out other safety-related tasks on a day-to-day basis.

"Airlines see this role as increasingly important and continue to employ people in this area. It is my opinion that it is likely that employment trends in this area will continue to rise," says Carney.

Carney says that government accident investigation departments usually recruit experienced aviation engineers, engineering managers and operations personnel. This is because they want workers to have a good grasp of all things related to flying. That way, workers only require specific accident investigation courses. So you may need to get some experience before you land a government job on an air accident investigation team.

"A good route into the investigation world is to aim to work for an airline safety department as this will usually involve incident investigation and some involvement with accident investigation," says Carney.

Investigators require more than a crash course

The NTSB's aviation accident investigators have varied backgrounds in engineering and maintenance. Keliher says the one common thread is that they are all pilots. She has an undergraduate degree in aeronautical science, a pilot's license and a master's degree in business administration (MBA).

Initially she had wanted to be a commercial pilot, but she changed her mind during her undergraduate degree. She attended an aeronautical university. For the students there, working for the NTSB was considered the best job to have. She interned at NTSB while she was an undergrad to get her foot in the door.

She says that the most important thing is to have many aspects to your resume. The NTSB is looking for versatile investigators. That means you should have a variety of interests and expertise. And you should know about as many different types of aircraft as possible -- home-built planes, gliders, hot air balloons, helicopters -- you name it!

Yearwood says the minimum education required is Grade 12 plus either a pilot's license or a maintenance license. He notes that a psychology degree would help you understand people's thinking in a crash situation.

An engineering degree would also give you an edge -- if you and another candidate have the same experience. However, Yearwood is clear that academics will never override experience.

"The biggest part of your resume that will help you get in the door is your experience and attitude towards the investigation and solving problems," he says.

Gaining experience

In addition to investigating accidents, Yearwood is in charge of dealing with the media and families affected by accidents. He makes decisions to open investigations, and hires and manages staff. He says he rarely hires people without years of experience. However, there may be jobs for young people in specialties or academics.

"The entry-level worker is often in their 40s. We continue to learn until we retire," says Yearwood. When he is hiring, he looks for candidates who have flown, maintained aircraft or worked as safety officers in an aircraft company.

Yearwood notes that all of his management team comes from industry, not military, backgrounds. "That's not our work pool," he says. "We now find there are lots of people in industry to draw from."

Because his team investigates civilian aviation incidents, it wants people who understand "real-world, civilian investigations," he says.

There are opportunities with the military to investigate incidents involving military planes. Yearwood explains that the two types of investigations are very different. Maintenance costs and deadlines are more important to industry. Understanding these pressures and how they can affect aviation accidents is important to investigators with the government. The military often looks at a different range of factors.

Carney gained experience through the military in Britain. He joined as an apprentice aircraft technician. He got experience in aviation engineering and military training. Then he was "let loose" on aircraft.

He moved up the ladder by completing supervisor training. After five years of experience there and a year-long course, he moved into the engineering management of army aircraft. He earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering and has started a master's degree in safety and accident investigation.

"I would definitely encourage anyone to follow the long and often challenging route to becoming an air accident investigator," he says.


Best Aviation
Links to places to study and work

National Transportation Safety Board
This board employs aviation accident investigators

Federal Aviation Administration
The FAA is very interested in flight safety

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