The Nuts and Bolts
By Aaron Sauer
This is the sixth blog in a new series of posts about the NTSB’s general aviation investigative process. This series, written by NTSB staff, explores how medical, mechanical, and general safety issues are examined in our investigations.
The public’s image of our agency is often based on the iconic blue and yellow NTSB jacket they see at accident scenes. What’s less well known is that examining and documenting on-scene evidence is just one step in an exhaustive process to gather all available information, determine a cause, and recommend any changes that can prevent similar accidents.
Since 2014, 12 percent of general aviation accidents—about three accidents every week—have involved a power plant malfunction. These malfunctions may include a fuel issue, component failure, or improper maintenance. As an NTSB air safety investigator, I investigate such mechanical malfunctions, gather the facts of the investigation, and ultimately help determine the probable causes of accidents.
After the on-scene phase of the investigation is complete, the airplane wreckage is often recovered by professional recovery services and stored in a secure location until we determine if further NTSB investigation is needed. When circumstances, such as a large hole in the engine crankcase or the in-flight loss of a propeller, indicate that further examination is necessary, we work with the airframe, engine, and component manufacturers. These entities serve as parties to our investigation, providing technical expertise on their product. If required, we coordinate a follow-up plan to examine the aircraft wreckage in greater detail. At the accident scene or recovery facility, our investigators examining the machine determine the scope of follow-up based on any anomalies discovered.
In some accidents involving a reported loss of engine power, the initial examination (typically a 100-hour inspection) turns up no obvious anomalies. At this point, one of the best and most telling follow-up activities is to attempt an engine test run. Engine test runs may be performed at a recovery facility or at a manufacturer’s facility. A successful engine test run is a critical piece of information that may lead the investigation down another path.
When, upon initial examination, the investigator observes an engine issue consistent with an internal mechanical failure, it’s typical to disassemble the engine at the manufacturer’s facility or the recovery facility under NTSB supervision. Examining an engine at the manufacturing facility often provides the advantage of having available engineering staff, historical data and drawings, and proper test equipment for the engine components.
Once at the manufacturer’s facility, the investigation team (typically including NTSB, FAA, and airframe, engine, and component manufacturer personnel) determines the plan or approved test procedure for the detailed investigation. The scope of the investigation is determined based on the known facts and circumstances of the accident, the condition of the engine and components, and the work required to confirm the failure. It’s important to note that, although the parties work collaboratively, the NTSB has the final say if there is any disagreement in the investigation process.
Engine functional testing, partial disassembly, and full engine disassembly are the most common investigation techniques used to determine the cause of a failure or malfunction. Disassembly helps us identify fractured or broken parts, which are then documented and set aside for even further examination.
Most manufacturers have their own materials laboratory, metallurgists, and engineers. At this point and with the team present, our investigators may elect to use the manufacturer’s material laboratory for a preliminary examination to obtain a quick analysis of the failure mode, then forward the parts to our materials laboratory in Washington, DC, for a detailed metallurgical examination.
Even observers with a solid understanding of our processes beyond the on-scene images might not understand the many ways that NTSB investigations can improve safety. Even when all signs point to a mechanical malfunction, our investigative process still looks at two other factors: human and environment. When an accident involves reported loss of engine power, we gather information about the pilot and aircraft owner—documentation from the scene, aircraft records, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records. We interview witnesses, visit and examine maintenance facilities, and meet with manufacturers. When necessary, we conduct follow-up examinations and interviews. If FAA inspectors handle the initial on-scene observations, we work hard to guarantee that our two agencies communicate effectively.
When the fact-gathering phase of the investigation is complete, our investigators compile all the relevant factual information, complete a detailed factual report, and create a public accident docket. For an engine failure accident, the docket may include engine reports, materials laboratory reports, aircraft records, and historical engine safety information in the form of service bulletins and airworthiness directives.
Many people understand that we may make recommendations at any point during an investigation, but sometimes our investigations also result in other actions to improve safety. For example, depending on the nature of the material failure, an NTSB investigator may work with the FAA or the manufacturer to issue a manufacturer service bulletin, service letter, safety notice, or a potential airworthiness directive. The safety action taken by the FAA or manufacturer depends on the failure’s cause, fleet exposure, and the potential safety awareness benefit of each product.
Over my 17 years as an NTSB investigator, I’ve investigated numerous engine-failure–related accidents that resulted from human error and material failure. Despite the varied causes and outcomes of these accidents, one fact stands out: proper maintenance is the best way to avoid catastrophic consequences. Following manufacturer-recommended maintenance practices and procedures and adhering to basic maintenance principles can prevent accidents.
Remember: SAFETY is NO ACCIDENT!
All accident reports and public accident dockets are available on the NTSB website: www.ntsb.gov.