Recently, the major media outlets reported good news about the major airlines and flight safety. Airline accidents have been reduced 65% over the last ten years. General aviation has also seen a downturn in accidents in the last ten years, although this trend is flattening out. In any case, flying remains one of the safest modes of transportation in the world.
Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.". Mark Twain notwithstanding; the low airline accident rate is impressive. If you use the "Six Sigma" method of quantifying this statistic, the airlines are very close to perfection. However, there are other aircraft crashes every day throughout the United States. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an organization that commits significant resources towards general aviation safety, issues a very comprehensive and detailed accident report entitled "The Nall Report" every year. This report studies and analyzes general aviation accidents, and designs training to reverse any trends. In calendar year 2006, there were almost 1500 general aviation accidents in the United States.
These accidents, usually involving smaller airplanes or helicopters, make only local headlines and are almost never carried on the national news. Fortunately, these accidents are usually minor with no or minor injuries. These accidents must still be investigated and in almost all cases, the local police are the first responders on the scene. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) may not arrive for several hours.
The Law Enforcement Response
What if an aircraft crashes in your jurisdiction; how should you respond and how should the scene be managed? In short, an aircraft accident should be handled just like any other crime scene or major accident. Like many investigations, investigators will be looking at the accident from two distinct perspectives. The federal authorities such as the FAA and NTSB are tasked with "why" this happened from an aviation perspective. Local law enforcement, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will be tasked to investigate if any criminality is involved.
Of course, the preservation of life is always the top priority at an accident scene, followed by the preservation of evidence. Police officers should control the response and continued presence at the scene to those deemed necessary to accomplish these two objectives. If there are injured persons present, medical personnel should be allowed full access to the crash site to permit them to apply their life saving interventions and effect rescue. Police officers should note the initial location of parts and/or equipment that is moved by medical responders so that responding investigators will know that the particular piece was moved after the accident occurred.
Aircraft accidents seem to whet the news media's appetite, and regardless of how minor the incident; expect a major and substantial news response. If you agency has a "media plan," it will likely be exercised for the event. If the accident is very minor, the NTSB might simply allow a lone FAA investigator to conduct the investigation. In these cases, the FAA investigators will heavily rely on local law enforcement for assistance and support. Requests for assistance may range from transportation to or from difficult-to-reach scenes as well as assistance in the securing of resources, such as light towers.
Once the initial response is completed, protection of the crime scene will be the priority. Almost 20 years ago, an airliner crashed late one snowy evening at New York's LaGuardia Airport, with some of the airliner coming to rest in Flushing Bay. After initial response efforts were completed, a detail was left in place to guard the scene until investigators began their tedious and methodical investigation at dawn's light. After a few hours, officers heard splashing in the water amongst some wreckage. A missed survivor? No, just a local thief, trying to go through luggage looking for valuables. In short order, he was arrested and charged with the violation of several state and federal laws.
As with criminal cases, the first responding officers can most help the FAA and NTSB investigators by the securing of eyewitnesses and the preservation of the scene. Keep in mind that there could be multiple crime scenes. If, for example, while landing, a plane sheared the top of a house and then continued for two blocks and landed in a field, responding officers would have two scenes to secure. There could also be a piece of wreckage a significant distance from the main accident scene. Perhaps there was a catastrophic failure of a part and it separated from the aircraft a mile before it crashed. Once again, at least two crime scenes to secure.
Sometimes a pilot makes a precautionary landing because of a possible emergency. Perhaps the pilot heard a strange noise or smelled smoke in the cockpit and decides to land the aircraft on a large open field to insure the safety of all aboard and to investigate the problem. Of course, it seems like the world responds and soon numerous agencies are present and the problem is investigated. The pilot has a licensed airplane mechanic look over the plane, and the mechanic declares the plane is sound for flight. Great! Now you ask the local FAA official, can he take off from here? Surprisingly, the FAA official says, "that's up to you, officer" and gets in his car and leaves. A dereliction of duty by the FAA? No! In fact, it is up to the local agency having jurisdiction over the property on which the aircraft is located. Many an aircraft have been allowed to be flown from a highway, parking lot or open field after a precautionary landing. Unsure what to do? Consult with your aviation unit if you have one, or perhaps get advice and/or suggestions from a neighboring police aviation unit.
As always, the most critical issue is safety. If you believe it can be flown away safely, without endangering any persons and/or property, it might be as simple as allowing the pilot the room to take off and the incident is concluded. In fact, most precautionary landings end this way. If the aircraft is inspected and found to be airworthy or the problem is corrected, most agencies allow the aircraft to be flown away. If your decision is not to allow the pilot to take off, arrangements must be made to have the aircraft trucked form the site.
What documentation must a pilot have on their person while flying? All pilots must have their license and a current medical certificate, as well as a government-issued photo identification, such as a driver's license or passport. Law enforcement officers should be aware that federal law mandates that a pilot show these items to a police officer when requested.
An Aircraft Accident Plan
In order for the response and investigation to go smoothly, it is a good idea to have a working relationship with FAA and NTSB investigators and have a pre-planned response plan. Perhaps, host a seminar on initial aircraft crash investigation and invite these agencies to make a presentation. Not only will it be educational, the networking will pay huge dividends at a real accident scene. If your agency does not already have one, prepare an "aircraft accident plan," which defines roles and responsibilities as well as a framework of the response. The accident response will be planned, effective and coordinated.