Run a Diagnostic, Mr. Sulu

 - April 21, 2008, 6:09 AM

Investigations of aircraft accidents–referred to in the past as “kicking tin”–are taking a decidedly high-tech turn, and NTSB chairman Marion Blakey predicted that crash probes are going to be driven increasingly by issues involving high-tech safety systems, integrated computer programs, high-grade materials and electronically generated data and data analysis.

One need look no further than the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 last November 12 in Belle Harbor, N.Y. The vertical stabilizer of the Airbus A300-600, which is attached to the fuselage with a composite flange, has been undergoing testing at NASA’s Langley (Va.) Research Center and at Ford Motor Co. in Lavonia, Mich.

All 260 people aboard the aircraft and five on the ground died in the accident, the second deadliest in U.S. aviation history. It is also the first crash investigation involving the failure of a major structural component made of composite materials.

Noting that NASA Langley has been studying composites for decades, Blakey described the work on Flight 587 as a meticulous process that Langley has the knowledge and equipment to perform. “It is an experience we hope to duplicate with other government agencies, with universities and other organizations possessing the expertise we need,” she said.

Blakey said that in early May she met with NASA “to discuss our ongoing work with them on composite materials” and also to discuss some of the “exciting” aircraft safety technologies that they are currently researching.

These include morphing technologies that can mimic nature and allow airplanes to change form in flight, much like birds (an original concept of the Wright brothers); self-correcting technology that can sense an impending failure, assess the problem and fix an aircraft in flight before a catastrophic event occurs; or refuse-to-crash technology that is able to guide an aircraft safely to the ground without pilot input when there is a security problem, such as that last September 11.

Accidents are not getting any simpler, Blakey said, and that means the next major air accident is just as likely to be an error in a line of computer code as it is the failure of the pilots to set their flaps before takeoff.

Quoting from a Rand Report on the NTSB, she said that Board investigators must be the ones who are able to ask the right questions and understand whether they have received the right answers. “To do this we must continue to improve our technological and training capabilities, improve our access to outside support and expertise and ensure that the party process (those who participate with us) is committed first and foremost to putting the pieces together and putting safety first,” she explained.

Blakey, who has been in office for less than a year, said Rand bluntly stated that the Board’s ability to lead investigations and to form expert teams is threatened by lack of training, equipment and facilities, and this is only going to become more acute as technology leaps forward.

In future accident investigations, she continued, the NTSB will increasingly be looking for evidence and clues in computer software and electronic data “that we are going to have to mine with the same meticulous attention that we give to the physical wreckage of an aircraft today.”

According to Blakey, the new NTSB Academy near Washington Dulles Intern-ational Airport, which will open in the fall next year, will provide the Safety Board with a “terrific opportunity” to adapt to and keep abreast of technological advancements and allow it to expand its lab facilities and bring in new equipment and tools.

“It gives us an excellent platform not only for sharing our knowledge–with accident investigators worldwide, first responders, law enforcement, firefighters and others we need to work with at the site of an accident–but it also gives us a platform for bringing expertise and resources and will help us strengthen our cooperative relationships with industry, academia and other government agencies,” she said.

Blakey said she agrees with the Rand Report that the NTSB’s “party process” of having outsiders, such as component manufacturers and operators, participate in an investigation generally works, and she believes that “a healthy level of tension” built into the party process results in high-quality results.

And while the “rough and tumble” of the meetings and hearings can sharpen arguments and focus issues, she is troubled that “dueling press conferences, hallway leaks, disinformation and excessively partisan behavior” at the witness tables have threatened to politicize the process.

“I’m told that this characterized more than one hearing of the past few years, and our most recent hearing on Emery Air Freight had to be adjourned because some of the witnesses were less than forthright with important information,” Blakey recalled. “The party process works as long as all the parties realize what a rare and unusual approach it is, and that they appreciate the kind of responsibility it places on every organization involved. And it should be very clear to all that the NTSB must call the shots on the contentious issues.”