When the GAMA executive board was in Washington, D.C., for the industry briefing earlier this year, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker assured GAMA members that the Safety Board “has its eye on the GA ball.”
Days earlier, The Washington Post had published an article that alleged that the NTSB was sending investigators to fewer and fewer fatal airplane crashes, especially those involving GA aircraft. The article quoted Rosenker as saying the agency wants “more safety payback” for the accidents where it spends its time.
Ensuring a Safety Payback
Rosenker told the GAMA directors that the NTSB historically has not conducted an on-scene investigation into fatal accidents involving cropdusters, homebuilts, illegal ultralights, balloons and gliders, which make up about 25 percent of the fatal accidents each year.
“It is simply a matter of prioritizing our efforts,” he explained. “Our cadre of 43 regional investigators simply cannot travel to every fatal and serious-injury accident, and we must rely on some of the 3,500 FAA inspectors to assist us.”
According to Rosenker, the NTSB reduced its on-site presence from 75 percent to about 62 percent over the past three years. But he suggested that the 13-percentage-point drop involved fatal accidents that had known circumstances and no safety payback.
Former NTSB member Carol Carmody and others support this position. In an interview with AIN last summer, Carmody agreed that the Board should not be required to investigate every aviation accident. In other transportation modes–rail, marine or pipelines–it is free to choose the ones that are going to provide a safety lesson.
“We don’t need to investigate every single aviation accident; we need to confine ourselves a little bit,” Carmody told AIN. “Of course, in general aviation accidents we don’t do full-blown investigations, but still it’s staff, it’s people, it’s paper, it’s taking time to find what the cause was and write it up.”
However, Carmody is uncertain how the suggestion might play on Capitol Hill. It has been pointed out in the past that the high visibility of and interest in aviation accidents– sometimes called the “wow” factor– make it easier for the NTSB to secure its funding from Congress.
“The wow work is not the small general aviation accident that happens every single weekend; nobody pays much attention to those, quite frankly,” she admitted. “And having to investigate them all is just excess work, it seems to me.”
Rosenker told GAMA that five years ago the NTSB had a backlog of about 2,500 cases that were more than six months old. That backlog has been reduced to about 400 cases and is decreasing fast.
“Large backlogs of accident investigations lead to faded memories and rushed work back in the office, all leading to a potential drop in the quality of the investigation, and the failure to take timely action to prevent the next accident,” he said. “By conserving our precious time traveling to and from the sites of accidents in which there is no obvious safety payback, we are able to produce more timely reports, more thorough investigations on the accidents that have safety issues, more GA accident reports and special investigations that put a spotlight on safety issues…and more safety recommendations that involve general aviation.”
Rosenker assured GAMA that the NTSB “will always launch to the scene of any corporate jet crash involving fatalities” because these types of aircraft accidents “simply involve too much complexity, visibility and potentially significant industrial ramifications for us not to launch on.”