Aircraft Accidents and the Patrol Officer

Just when you thought you could handle anything, an aircraft crashes in your jurisdiction!


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.

Precautionary Landings

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.

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