By Dennis Jones, NTSB Managing Director
Last week, as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Safe Skies for Africa program, I led a team of NTSB investigators and communications specialists to South Africa to share lessons we’ve learned from our accident investigations. The Safe Skies for Africa program, created 20 years ago, aims to improve the safety and security of aviation on the continent. Our team shared some NTSB strategies with our international counterparts to help them achieve similar outcomes in their region.
From my perspective, the Safe Skies program is working. After spending about 20 years in Africa participating in accident investigations, conducting workshops, helping improve accident investigation programs, and training investigators, I’ve seen increased commercial air service between the United States and Africa (for example, there are now US commercial flights to Africa, which wasn’t the case earlier in my career), improved investigation quality, and a reduced rate of accidents involving commercial aircraft.
On this trip, the NTSB team shared a variety of lessons learned from different disciplines. Dennis Hogenson, Western Pacific Region Deputy Regional Chief for Aviation Safety, pointed out that, like Africa, the United States is seeing a high incidence of general aviation (GA) crashes. He told his audience that, while airline accidents have become rare, GA accidents account for most aviation fatalities in the United States. We investigate about 1,500 GA accidents each year; those involving loss of control in flight still result in more than 100 fatalities annually. In many of our GA accident investigations, we’ve discovered that pilots didn’t have the adequate knowledge, skills, or recurrent training to fly safely, particularly in questionable weather conditions, and their inability to appropriately recover from stalls often resulted in deadly accidents. Dennis encouraged his African counterparts to initiate more training and increase awareness of technology, such as angle-of-attack indicators, that can help prevent these tragedies.
Bill Bramble, a human factors investigator, outlined our investigation process and explained how we examine all factors—machine, human, and environment—to understand an accident and make recommendations to prevent it from happening again. Bill highlighted several accidents we investigated in which human factors played a role. But even when a probable cause statement focuses on factors not normally associated with human performance, it’s impossible to totally remove humans from the accident chain.
“Humans designed it, built it, operated it, maintained it, managed it, and regulated it. Human factors are always involved in complex system failures,” Bramble said.
To prevent accidents and improve the safety of air travel in Africa, it’s important that operating aircraft are airworthy, meaning that all structure, systems, and engines are intact and maintained in accordance with the regulations. To emphasize this point, NTSB aerospace engineer, Clint Crookshanks presented a series of case studies discussing airworthiness issues and offered guidance on ways to classify damage to aircraft.
Chihoon “Chich” Shin, an NTSB aerospace engineer, addressed helicopter safety. The number of helicopter operations (emergency medical services, tourist, and law enforcement support) in Africa is increasing, and so is the number of helicopter accidents. Chich presented case studies and highlighted some important safety issues from an engineering perspective.
“The metal doesn’t lie,” Shin said. He called for increased awareness of the safety issues affecting helicopter safety and encouraged action from key stakeholders, such as regulatory agencies and helicopter manufacturers and operators, to help reduce accidents and fatalities. He also touted the importance of crash-resistant recording devices to help investigators determine what happened in a crash and work to prevent it from happening again.
NTSB communications staff emphasized another side of our work in transportation safety. Stephanie Matonek, a transportation disaster assistance specialist, discussed the importance of planning for family assistance after an accident occurs.
“Having a family assistance plan in place, identifying your family assistance partners, and addressing the fundamental concerns for families and survivors that cross all cultures is not only a crucial step but the right thing to do,” she said.
Nicholas Worrell, Chief of the Office of Safety Advocacy, addressed messaging, encouraging attendees to go beyond investigations to teach their safety lessons effectively. He encouraged investigators to raise awareness of the safety issues they uncover to spur action on their recommendations.
Aviation is a global business. Our mission is to make transportation safer the world over by conducting independent accident investigations and advocating for safety improvements. With outreach activities like the one we just completed in Africa, we hope to make aviation safer, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. After all, transportation safety is a global challenge. When safety wins, we all win.