Smithsonian Channel’s Alaska Aircrash Investigations Series

By Chris O’Neil

The NTSB is known for investigating large-scale air carrier accidents and other major transportation events. But a significant part of the agency’s daily workload is investigating general aviation and charter aircraft accidents across the country. There were 1,256 accidents involving general aviation and charter aircraft in 2014. Of these, 261 accidents resulted in the deaths of 439 people.

Charged with investigating them are 52 aviation safety investigators, or ASIs, based around the country, who often travel solo to a crash scene. While they may be the only NTSB investigators on scene, they are supported by the agency’s resources in Washington—ranging from our state-of-the-art laboratory to specialists in metallurgy and air traffic control.

A new television series on the Smithsonian Channel looks at the challenges and rewards of the NTSB’s ASIs in Alaska, who are charged with investigating airplane accidents in a state where weather and terrain make air travel a necessity.

The TV series, Alaska Aircrash Investigations, which debuted yesterday, follows our Alaska ASIs during the on-scene investigation of small airplane, or general aviation, crashes. The series provides a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the incredible work these men and women do.

The purpose of sending ASIs into the mountains and crevasses of Alaska to investigate crashes is to try and find out why the accidents happen and what can be done to prevent them from happening again. The show informs the public about the processes NTSB investigators undertake to find the probable cause of accidents. The series also highlights important messages about general aviation safety.

The series also sets into sharp focus some of the safety challenges throughout the general aviation community that the NTSB has been concerned about for years and that have been a mainstay on the NTSB’s yearly Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. In the 2016 Most Wanted List, we focus on loss of aircraft control by the pilot. Between 2008 and 2014, about 47 percent of fatal fixed-wing general aviation accidents in the United States involved pilots losing control of their airplane in flight, resulting in 1,210 fatalities throughout the United States. During the past 12 years, air fatalities dropped by 57 percent in Alaska. Based on accident investigations in Alaska in the past decade, the NTSB identified 32 different actions needed to improve aviation safety.

Aviation in Alaska is central to sustaining communities, economies and the enjoyment of the wilderness of our nation’s last frontier. Two notable examples of safety improvements in Alaskan aviation include the use of weather cameras throughout Alaska and the FAA’s Capstone Project. The use of weather cameras in Alaska provides pilots real-time intelligence on flying conditions, allowing them to “see” the weather conditions they will encounter on their journey. The FAA’s Capstone Project is a GPS-driven system that gives pilots improved situational awareness by allowing them to see where their aircraft is in relation to terrain, and it allows small operators and dispatchers to provide real-time flight-following capabilities.

The Alaska Air Carriers Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Medallion Foundation have all worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB to advance safety in the general aviation community.

The work of the men and women of the National Transportation Safety Board is vital to the continuous improvement of safety across all modes of transportation. While the general public has access to all of the findings and results from NTSB accident investigations on its public docket, much of that day-to-day investigative work is conducted out of the public eye. Alaska Aircrash Investigations provides the public we serve a glimpse into the NTSB’s investigative process and the challenges our investigators face in our nation’s last frontier.

Chris O’Neil is the NTSB’s Director of Public Affairs.

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