Ever notice how everyone becomes an expert accident investigator within seconds of a crash? Without facts, though, most of what the media reports is simply guesswork. That’s what happened after an Asiana Boeing 777 crashed short of Runway 28L at San Francisco International last July. Less than a day later some “really bad animations” started appearing on tv, recalls Jack Suchocki, a forensic animator who runs Boca Raton, Fla.-based litigation support company Eyewitness Animations. “There are many companies that create compelling videos, but they may not be at all accurate,” he said.
For the first few days after the Asiana accident, Suchocki, a former Eastern Airlines pilot, could do little more than yell at the inaccuracies he saw on tv. Within a few days of the accident, however, the NTSB deviated from its regular routine and began releasing factual data–details from the cockpit voice recorder. That’s when Suchocki and his animation team went to work creating an animation based on facts, not speculation. “We put together three different versions of the Asiana video,” he said. “We’d update it every time we learned something new from the NTSB.” Within five days of the crash, the Eyewitness Animations video was making the rounds on the Internet and being played by major tv outlets. Even people unfamiliar with aviation-speak could see the difference between a normal arrival and how the 777 crew flew that July afternoon.
A problem with the videos that often circulate after an accident is that it’s difficult for the untrained eye to see the difference between an animation created as an entertainment device and one designed as an educational tool. Having also worked as an expert witness in the aviation industry, Suchocki understands the need to be accurate not just in what he says but also with the stories his videos tell. Because the majority of his customers are law firms working in general aviation and the airline industry–split about 50/50 between plaintiff and defense cases–trying to prove a point, he needs little extra encouragement to ensure accuracy.
An Eyewitness Perspective
In one of the more than 1,000 videos Eyewitness Animations has created in its 23-year history, the company used data from ATC, radar, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder to re-create the final approach of an airline crew that was accused of flying too low near an airport during what should have been a routine arrival. The customer for that project was the airline’s management and union teams. In another instance, an attorney was certain his client would be exonerated after a midair between two GA aircraft. “When we finished the re-creation, we explained that we were able to place a virtual camera inside the cockpit of his client’s airplane. That’s when the attorney realized his client had had plenty of warning and should have noticed the other airplane before the accident,” said Suchocki.
One of Eyewitness Animation’s customers, the Wolk Law Firm, was a pioneer in getting video reconstructions admitted in court. Law firm president Arthur Wolk explained why he believes these video efforts have been successful for his company. “I think people are used to getting their information from television, so anything you can do to boil it down to that medium makes it easier for people to understand. Airplanes operate in three dimensions, and I wanted to be able to portray [the facts of a case] in something more than just a witness’s words. It is one thing to say a wing separated from an airplane. It’s quite another to show what happened to the airplane after that occurred. These videos peel away some of the layers…and give people an opportunity to see something they might not normally be able to see.”
Suchocki said law firms usually don’t call him until the investigation is close to concluding, by which time reams of data are just waiting to be blended into a video that shows the accident the way an eyewitness would have experienced it. With sources such as ATC recordings, weather and a digital flight data recorder that captures 300 separate aircraft parameters each second, the volume of data to be reviewed is staggering.
Eyewitness Animations does not pick which elements to keep and which to discard. “I understand what the data is telling me, of course,” Suchocki said, “but I’m never supposed to add my own judgment to the final video product. Take radar, for instance. I could interpret the data and create a radar plot in my sleep, but I don’t. Radar [accuracy has its limitations], and we need someone else to verify precisely how everything should come together.”
The job of the forensic animator is to be certain the final video product precisely matches all the parameters the experts provide. “The final production should help anyone make sense of this and see the forest without all the trees.” Suchocki has to testify to the accuracy of the work every time a company video is used at a trial. “The court can’t ignore its responsibility to verify the qualifications of all of the experts,” Suchocki said, “as well as the software used to create these videos. It needs to be sure it always understands where the information came from originally.”
Aircraft accident animations force all parties to relive painful experiences. But they also offer investigators a chance to understand clearly the dynamics of an accident or incident and determine whether a person or a product failed at some point. Wolk said, “Illustrations are much more realistic [today] and the special effects are much more sophisticated. They now let us visualize a component in incredible detail. The sophistication of these videos will one day soon be indistinguishable from live action.” Suchocki summed it up thus: “Anything that helps an audience better understand the story of what happened is an advantage.”