Crash Detectives: Becoming an Aviation Accident Investigator
Aviation accident investigators are specialized detectives who get
to the bottom of airplane crashes. But they don't stop at planes -- or crashes.
Their investigations could include everything from commercial airlines to
helicopters, gliders and hot air balloons. They investigate anything involving
aircraft that could put people at risk.
Their mission is to find out what went wrong to cause the problem. They
do not try to find fault or blame. They investigate the scene and continue
specialized investigations in offices, labs and overhaul facilities until
they determine what happened. Then they make recommendations to help reduce
future risk. They report their findings to the public.
"What you see on TV shows like CSI -- we do all that stuff. But for the
police and us, what they show you in an hour on TV takes us a year," says
Bill Yearwood. He is the manager of a government aviation accident investigation
The next generation of aviation accident investigators will have to be
technologically savvy in addition to having a well-rounded resume of flight
Aviation technology is constantly evolving. New technology brings new challenges
for investigators. Also, as the aviation industry continues to grow, it looks
for ways to save money.
"The industry is also realizing that it is more cost-effective to prevent
accidents rather than reacting to those that have already happened," says
George Carney. He is an air accident investigator for the British army.
The challenge of technology
Do aviation accident investigators have a James Bond-like secret basement
of cool technological devices?
"I wish!" says Zoe Keliher. She is an aviation accident investigator with
the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "It's government -- there's
no way we get that."
However, Keliher does need to keep up with the latest technology used in
the air in order to understand it when she's investigating. She is a young
investigator and says that gives her an advantage when dealing with technology.
"I have such fluidity with the computer, software and digital cameras,"
she says. Older workers may face more of a learning curve when dealing with
new devices and software.
Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs), also known
as black boxes (even though they are red), may help investigators. But they
are not always reliable and not always recovered after a crash.
Investigators must use other tactics, including the latest technology,
such as inertial navigation (a computer navigation helper that tracks without
external references). Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are also becoming
common tools for investigators.
"The use of GPS for plotting wreckage is also fairly advanced, as is the
use of simulation methods to recreate the flight of a crashed aircraft following
downloads of FDR and CVR information," says Carney.
Opportunities within investigation departments exist for workers with backgrounds
in information technology. They are needed to discover innovative ways of
getting information from damaged black boxes.
"Whenever there is a major improvement in technology, there is an increased
risk of incidents or accidents, and therefore the need for investigators will
always remain," says Carney.
For example, NASA has designed an Intelligent Flight Control System. Simply
put, this system imitates the human mind and uses that process in flight control
The system enables pilots to stay in control and safely land an aircraft
-- even if the control surface failed or the airframe was damaged. These types
of problems affect the stability of the aircraft, and a traditional pilot
would be doomed. However, the control system can quickly figure out what's
happening and help the pilot control the aircraft.
Where the opportunities exist
In addition to government-sponsored accident investigators, like those
at the NTSB, similar positions exist with the U.S. air force. There are also
opportunities with airlines.
Airline safety departments have their own investigators who often work
with government teams at the scenes of accidents. Airline-employed accident
investigators work within airline companies and carry out other safety-related
tasks on a day-to-day basis.
"Airlines see this role as increasingly important and continue to employ
people in this area. It is my opinion that it is likely that employment trends
in this area will continue to rise," says Carney.
Carney says that government accident investigation departments usually
recruit experienced aviation engineers, engineering managers and operations
personnel. This is because they want workers to have a good grasp of all things
related to flying. That way, workers only require specific accident investigation
courses. So you may need to get some experience before you land a government
job on an air accident investigation team.
"A good route into the investigation world is to aim to work for an airline
safety department as this will usually involve incident investigation and
some involvement with accident investigation," says Carney.
Investigators require more than a crash course
The NTSB's aviation accident investigators have varied backgrounds in
engineering and maintenance. Keliher says the one common thread is that they
are all pilots. She has an undergraduate degree in aeronautical science, a
pilot's license and a master's degree in business administration (MBA).
Initially she had wanted to be a commercial pilot, but she changed her
mind during her undergraduate degree. She attended an aeronautical university.
For the students there, working for the NTSB was considered the best job to
have. She interned at NTSB while she was an undergrad to get her foot in the
She says that the most important thing is to have many aspects to your
resume. The NTSB is looking for versatile investigators. That means you should
have a variety of interests and expertise. And you should know about as many
different types of aircraft as possible -- home-built planes, gliders, hot
air balloons, helicopters -- you name it!
Yearwood says the minimum education required is Grade 12 plus either a
pilot's license or a maintenance license. He notes that a psychology degree
would help you understand people's thinking in a crash situation.
An engineering degree would also give you an edge -- if you and another
candidate have the same experience. However, Yearwood is clear that academics
will never override experience.
"The biggest part of your resume that will help you get in the door is
your experience and attitude towards the investigation and solving problems,"
In addition to investigating accidents, Yearwood is in charge of dealing
with the media and families affected by accidents. He makes decisions to open
investigations, and hires and manages staff. He says he rarely hires people
without years of experience. However, there may be jobs for young people in
specialties or academics.
"The entry-level worker is often in their 40s. We continue to learn until
we retire," says Yearwood. When he is hiring, he looks for candidates who
have flown, maintained aircraft or worked as safety officers in an aircraft
Yearwood notes that all of his management team comes from industry, not
military, backgrounds. "That's not our work pool," he says. "We now find there
are lots of people in industry to draw from."
Because his team investigates civilian aviation incidents, it wants people
who understand "real-world, civilian investigations," he says.
There are opportunities with the military to investigate incidents involving
military planes. Yearwood explains that the two types of investigations are
very different. Maintenance costs and deadlines are more important to industry.
Understanding these pressures and how they can affect aviation accidents is
important to investigators with the government. The military often looks at
a different range of factors.
Carney gained experience through the military in Britain. He joined as
an apprentice aircraft technician. He got experience in aviation engineering
and military training. Then he was "let loose" on aircraft.
He moved up the ladder by completing supervisor training. After five years
of experience there and a year-long course, he moved into the engineering
management of army aircraft. He earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical
engineering and has started a master's degree in safety and accident investigation.
"I would definitely encourage anyone to follow the long and often challenging
route to becoming an air accident investigator," he says.
Links to places to study and work
National Transportation Safety Board
This board employs aviation accident investigators
Federal Aviation Administration
Back to Career Cluster
The FAA is very interested in flight safety