Aviation accidents and incidents are often associated with losses both in terms of lives and money. In such cases, it is undeniable that the task of Aircraft Scene Investigators (ASI), which is specifically to find the root cause of aircraft related tragedies, should be accomplished accurately and efficiently.
As one may expect, ASIs utilize a myriad of tools in order to gain the information necessary in establishing a valid conclusion; a few examples of such tools are cockpit voice recorders and advanced flight simulators.
Nonetheless, even with such, ASIs face significant challenges in finding the truth behind a disaster, some of which are as follows: technological limitations as well as complexities in understanding the clues.
Therefore, as the world continuous to change alongside the evolution of the risks and threats in aviation, there is no doubt that maintaining the competency among ASIs are vital in order to ensure proper investigations as well as to gain insights for developing additional safety measures for flight.
The point that flying is among the safest means to travel as proven through statistical findings (Hessburg, 2001) is without doubt often emphasized through the use of mass media.
However, it is quite ironic that the media sector also highlights the fact that aviation disasters are often, if not always, more dreadful than accidents which occur in other forms of transport. In this sense, it would definitely be a worthwhile pursuit to understand the roots of such disasters in order to conceptualize means of preventing unnecessary loss of lives in the future. Aircraft Scene Investigators (ASIs) are given the responsibility to determine the causes of aviation accidents, incidents, and catastrophes.
Furthermore, the aforesaid investigators are not of uniform training and background as variation in expertise and perspective is essential for achieving success in the investigation (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000). Nonetheless, investigators utilize and derive information basically through a similar set of tools for investigation. Also, it would be appropriate to assume that the challenges that they face in general are quite analogous.
Tools for Investigation
Extracting Information from Recorders
As noted previously, ASIs consider several tools in order to gather information throughout the process of investigation. The first of tool that may be considered as a valuable source of information would be the flight data recorder (FDR). The FDR is installed on aircrafts for the purpose of maintaining a continuous record of technical flight information; specifically, the FDR records time-specific information throughout the flight, keeping track of aspects such as speed, altitude, position, and even engine performance (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000).
Of course, such data are all valuable to an investigation even from a practical perspective. For one, given that such technical information are made available to investigators, they would be able to immediately point out the phases of the flight wherein problems may start to arise especially if the concerns were caused by mechanical reasons.
However, despite being able to provide such extensive information regarding the flight, it must be noted that the FDR is commonly utilized directly in conjunction with another investigation tool.
The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is similar to the FDR as it maintains a record of in-flight occurrences; however, the CVR is placed in aircrafts for the sole purpose of recording conversations held within the cockpit (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000).
The purpose and rationale behind placing such a device is quite apparent. As problems occur during flight, pilots would of course attempt to relay and discuss the problem either with the co-pilot or with the person in charge at the air traffic control (ATC). Furthermore, it would be possible to note for events wherein alarm and distress may become evident in a pilot's conversation.
As aforesaid and may be seen in Appendix A in the form of a sample comparative transcript, the FDR and the CVR are utilized hand-in-hand so as to develop more reliable insights. In particular, the words of those in the cockpit, as reports to the ATC are regularly done, may confirm the accuracy of the data gathered from the FDR and vice versa, clarifying potential points of confusion and providing clues for the presence of human or mechanical error (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000).
Human Factors: Records and Reports
Aside from records which may be found within a plane's black box, other reports and data sheets may also prove to be valuable tools in investigating the roots of an aviation disaster (Wood & Sweginnis, 2006). Pilot and staff records are an ideal example of such.
Learning more about the individuals involved with the aircraft and its flight, encompassing the pilots and other crews on-board as well as the loading and maintenance personnel, it would be logical to assume that valuable information may be gained from their actual performance and credibility records (Wise, Hopkin, & Garland, 2010).
As generally known, human error remains to be a possible source of problems among various industries, and the aviation industry is clearly not an exemption; a simple mistake may lead to a chain of detrimental events, which in the context of flight might lead to the loss of numerous lives when such events result in a crash landing.
Specifically, deviations from standard operating procedures and improper judgment, which may arise or be further aggravated by illnesses or even intoxication, are some of the most common human errors involving pilots (Wise, Hopkin, & Garland, 2010).
Pilots, due to their presence and direct command of the aircraft, may be essential to the safety of a flight but the effects of other personnel in ensuring such should not be dismissed.
As a matter of fact, maintenance and cargo loading reports, as well as inconsistencies or inappropriateness in such, contain information on whether other personnel associated with the flight may be held partly responsible; in relation to this, information pertaining to the management, in terms of whether the proper rules and working conditions are being met so as to enable work functions to be effectively accomplished, might also be worthwhile to locate and assess (Wise, Hopkin, & Garland, 2010).
As one may speculate, not all problems and shortcomings supposedly brought forth by the staff are directly caused by incompetence; inappropriate working conditions as well as unjustifiable demands arising from the management's misguided set of priorities may also trigger human errors.
Hence, given such details regarding the significance of finding records and reports regarding management and personnel activities, it would be correct to state that such documents are essential tools for investigators.
The Debris: A Definitive Source of Critical Data
Since the aircraft, akin to every other mechanical marvel, is prone to wear and tear, damage may accumulate throughout years of flight. While external damages may be easily identified by regular inspection, damages within hidden or small portions of an aircraft may be missed and hence might eventually lead to perils during flight, for example, a minute fracture that is formed between the bonds within the internal and external portions of the plane's frame.
While at first this may not cause a problem, it is possible that the fracture would either eventually break apart or detrimentally affect cabin pressurization (Das, 1997). In this sense, the debris collected from the crash site as well as those which may have been separated during flight and eventually recovered may be used as tools for investigation.
While the notion of painstakingly sorting through the remains of an aircraft and distinguishing from damages which may have manifested due to the actual crash may seem to be lengthy and difficult, such a step is absolutely necessary.
Conducting a thorough analysis of the site is the first step that needs to be accomplished in an investigation (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000). Through such, finding chemical evidences from the debris become possible. Again, the debris from the aircraft may serve as an investigation tool, albeit in this case in search for chemical residues which may provide hints on what occurred during flight.
For one, assessing the possibility that the portions of the plane caught fire during flight as may be checked against findings from voice recorders is in part accomplished by checking for marks and residues (Wood & Sweginnis, 2006). As a matter of fact, the chemical oxygen generators carried on aircrafts have been a potential cause of such problems.
Specifically, various events throughout the past decade have proved that the chemical oxygen generator, given specific environmental conditions, may continuously increase its temperature eventually leading to combustion (Walters & Sumwalt, 2000). Without a doubt, what some may regard as mere remains may be considered by ASIs as vital tools for successfully completing a reliable investigation.
Simulations: Tools for Certainty
While the abovementioned tools are definitely important and are often considered throughout an investigation in order to develop a proper concept of why the accident occurred and how it might be prevented in the future, considering the use of another tool for establishing further certainty is also essential.
Modern-day flight simulators, as may be seen in Appendix C, are examples of such a tool; the extent of realism brought forth by using flight simulators is comparable to the experience gained from actual flight, hence it becomes understandable as to why such are commonly used for pilot training and practice (Byrne, 2002). In relation to carrying out investigations in aviation, flight simulators become a vital tool due to the extent in which it may reproduce actual flight conditions.
Specifically, it is common for an ASI to collate information derived from other tools, and then subsequently input such data into the flight simulator; as a proof of the capability and complexity of flight simulators, it is necessary to point out that even weather conditions during the course of disaster may once again be accurately reproduced, ready to be tested by an actual pilot (Byrne, 2002).