The Dallas Morning News
In the wake of the aircraft collision in Dallas on Saturday, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are now gathering evidence in order to paint a broader picture of what happened during the midair plane explosion that left six people dead.
On Monday, agency members retrieved an electronic flight display from the B-17 Flying Fortress and GPS unit from the P-63 Kingcobra, which could provide insight into the event that involved two vintage warplanes.
The investigation could take up to two years, if not more, said former NTSB investigator Jeff Guzzetti about the accident at the Wings Over Dallas show at Dallas Executive Airport. Over the next 30 days, the agency must release a preliminary report about the crash.
Investigators must address several questions throughout the course of their research, said Guzzetti, who has studied aviation safety for the last 35 years.
“It appears to me that this fighter was out of position, but why was the fighter out of position? Was there a proper preflight briefing? Was everyone coordinated with everyone?” he said.
What other questions will the investigation seek to address — and why exactly does it take so long? Here’s what NTSB investigations entail and why they may take a couple of years.
How does the investigation work?
There are a couple of steps that must take place in any NTSB investigation, regardless of the incident. But the process is not strictly linear, and phases overlap, the agency said on its website.
First, investigators collect facts and make general observations at the wreckage site, which is known as the “field phase,” Guzzetti said. This phase includes inspecting the wreckage, taking relevant pictures at the site and using drones to produce an area map.
However, since neither aircraft carried “black boxes,” or flight data recorders, investigators may have to use antiquated techniques to recover critical information, said aviation professor and former Ghanian air force squadron pilot Kwasi Adjekum. He holds a doctoral degree in aerospace sciences and received training on aircraft accident investigation from the U.S. Naval Safety Center.
“A lot of the investigation … will have to be done the old school way,” Adjekum, who teaches at the University of North Dakota, said. “So we have to look at the videos, we have to interview witnesses — both people who are on the ground and at the airport.”
During the data collection phase, the board will solicit videos from spectators at the event and interview key witnesses, including spectators and people operating behind the scenes. This could potentially present another dilemma for the investigation, Adjekum said.
“A lot of times as investigators, you have to be careful when you’re interviewing people because people’s recollection of events sometimes can be biased,” he said, adding the conversations must be correlated with factual data.
Investigators will also interview air traffic controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration and ensure that air show performers are complying with FAA rules.
The goal of data collection is to produce a digital recreation of the midair collision, using interviews and footage from the scene.
However, since the display and navigation unit were both damaged and other evidence is available, Guzzetti noted he doesn’t think these devices will provide any additional help to the investigation.
Next, investigators will analyze the facts and triangulate a hypothesis about the cause of the incident. They come together to determine the salient issues of the investigation, using digital recreation and other relevant reports, including weather conditions and engine performance data.
“If the hypothesis is not tenable, it is ruled out,” Adjekum said. “They will continue until they reach a hypothesis that is backed by data.”
Finally, the board will write a final report, which includes recommendations to prevent incidents from occurring. The point of these reports are not to assign blame or identify a scapegoat, but rather to ensure safety at air shows going forward, Adjekum said.
After the 2011 Reno, Nev., air racing incident, which killed 11 people, the NTSB gave recommendations to the FAA, the national racing group and local Reno racing group. Some of these suggestions to the National Air-racing Group included restricting pilots with certain medical conditions and providing G-force training to pilots in the show. This investigation took eight months to complete.
Why might it take long?
Guzzetti said a thorough investigation takes time. According to the NTSB, it could take between 12 and 24 months.
“This is not an episode of CSI, where everything is wrapped up in an hour,” he said. “This is a time-honored process that has proven successful over the last six decades.”
According to the former NTSB and FAA investigator, a highly complex incident may hamper a timely investigation. However, Guzzetti said he does not think the Dallas collision is particularly complex.
Another reason for a potential delay is a “backlog of work” at the NTSB, Guzzetti said. Investigations fall under the jurisdiction of the NTSB, which is a 400-member agency. Just about 100 members investigate aircraft, while the rest are responsible for marine, highway and railroad incidents.
“Depending on how busy the NTSB is, they may have 10 investigations that are ongoing at the same time, and that slows them down,” he said.
Utmost accuracy in the final report could also delay investigation results. Because the agency must maintain credibility, investigators strive to deliver spot-on and accurate reports throughout their review.
“They are the voice of god when it comes to aviation accidents, and they want to make sure that their power is only through their credibility,” he said. “If they lose credibility, no one will listen to their recommendations.”
NTSB is also required to release a preliminary report within 30 days with basic information on how many were killed and where it happened.
“This report just calls out the basic circumstances and puts a stake in the ground to let the world know that they have initiated their investigation,” Guzzetti said.