There was once a saying in the news media business to “get it first, get it right, but first get it right.” The NTSB strives to get it right above all, but we recognize that timeliness is essential, too. One of my goals even before joining the Board was to see if aviation crash processing time could be reduced on the less complex events. After all, the whole point of accident investigation is to become educated on what went wrong and get the word out as soon as possible to avoid a similar scenario.
But at the NTSB, it’s not all black and white. I want to take this opportunity to clear up some common misconceptions about how the agency functions and describe our process for those unfamiliar with its intricacies.
Congress requires us to evaluate all aviation accidents in the United States as well as significant accidents in all modes of transportation—rail, pipeline, highway, marine, and hazardous materials (how we determine what’s “significant” is a topic for another blog). Given this mandate, our resources are divided. Out of around 400 NTSB staff, only 45 accident field investigators are assigned to aviation. However, although we are required to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States, as well as those occurring outside the country when they involve US-made equipment, that doesn’t mean we send an investigator to every crash. Often, it’s sufficient for an investigator to just interview a surviving pilot over the phone. In many cases, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sends someone from its local office to an incident and shares the on-scene data with us.
Sometimes, though, an accident is more complex, and a deeper dive is required. For example, vital electronic data can be extracted from avionics, phones, or tablets that aren’t too damaged. Often that can be done in the field, but some devices must be sent to the NTSB lab in Washington, DC, for more thorough examination. There, our technicians painstakingly recover what they can, but—remember—they’re receiving devices from accident scenes in all the other transportation modes as well. The backlog can get lengthy. The lab must also decipher information from voice recorders (if any), vehicle monitors, onboard and external cameras, and metallurgical specimens, and conduct sound spectrum analysis, among other things, from every mode.
Sometimes, despite hours or days of lab effort, no data survives, which makes determining probable cause much more difficult. That’s why our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes “Install Crash-Resistant Recorders and Establish Flight Data Monitoring Programs.” Unbiased and accurate device readouts speed investigations up tremendously compared to relying solely on eyewitnesses, who are far less reliable.
In addition to analyzing all the machine information we can, we also look at the human factors present in an accident. We send toxicology samples to the FAA’s medical lab in Oklahoma City for analysis. Autopsy data must be gathered from local medical examiners, whose schedules don’t always align with ours. In a perfect world all this back-end analysis could be completed quickly, but reality intrudes. Factors such as staffing in other state and local government entities, the sheer number of reports the agency is juggling at a time, and yes, inefficiency, can drag things out. Those situations are not always within NTSB control.
Still, many reports frankly took too long to complete, and the average time to complete reports has increased over the years. Recognizing these delays, in 2019, staff in our Office of Aviation Safety began assessing our report process to see if we could streamline it in any way we can control. The effort produced significant improvements, and the early results are encouraging. From March 2020 to March 2021, about 1,100 investigations were initiated, and about 1,500 were completed. This doesn’t include several hundred foreign investigations in which the NTSB participates every year. This contrasts favorably with the prior year, where from 2019 to March 2020, about 1,320 aviation investigations were initiated, and about 1,150 were completed, not including foreign investigations.
Naturally, everyone wants everything faster. Going forward, the less complex cases we investigate are being scaled to finish in 6 months or so, while the more complicated ones will continue to take longer—sometimes much longer. Although we recognize the importance of timeliness in our investigations, we strive for a level of accuracy that ensures we’ve left no stone unturned.
As we revamp our investigation report process to get accurate information out more quickly, I think the public will appreciate the result. But, like most things, the process is a work in progress. We will never sacrifice precision for speed, but rest assured that we’re taking a hard look to see how we can get lifesaving information out more efficiently. We all look forward to seeing the progress the agency makes as we implement new strategies.