Investigators Are On The Scene

Good advice and safety tips for aircraft technicians from accident investigators


Manager Bud Donner
The FAA Accident Investigation division is run by Bud Donner, a man about my age, whose other lives before hiring on to the FAA in 1988 were spent as an Air Force pilot, Continental Airlines pilot, an NTSB Investigator and an FAA Investigator. I invited myself into his office unannounced, offered a brief introduction, and watched his eyes focus on mine. I told him I wanted to do an article on his division. His eyes narrowed even further. I told him I wanted to ask him and his Investigators a few questions about the job they do.
Since I do not have the face of an angel, I had to promise that they would see the article first and buy off on it. His argument for this little concession of mine was that he read some of my previous articles, which included references to elephants, gorillas, and dead cats, and he was taking no chances. After my blood dried on the promissory note, I asked my questions and he answered them. First off, I asked the typical bureaucratic questions and I found out that the Accident Investigation Division had two goals. The first is to provide 100 percent participation in all domestic accidents investigated by the NTSB. The second goal is to participate in 80 percent of major foreign accidents. He has to meet these goals with 7 investigators. Right now two of the Investigator positions are open. Anyone interested in being an investigator can check out job bid at www.faa.gov. on the Internet.
I then segued into my next series of questions by asking Bud what attributes would the perfect investigator have. He surprised me by saying he would look for broad aviation experience in an applicant and the ability to manage FAA resources like air traffic control. The applicant should have the inherent ability to get along with people in high stress situations. This was not my perception of what an investigator should have and seeing my bewildered look, he laughed, and said that the ideal candidate would be all of the above plus be 30 years of age, have an aeronautical engineering degree, an ATP, and an A&P with an IA. He added that some time spent as a newscaster and an air traffic controller would be nice, but he said these people are hard to come by.
I next asked Bud what training would he put the new investigator through before he or she went out on their own.
He rattled off the following, "Two accident investigation courses, one airplane the other rotorcraft; Human Factors training; Cabin Safety training; and courses on specific make and model aircraft like Boeing and Airbus. OJT is also important."
He continued, "During breaks in the training, the new investigator goes on accidents and shadows a more experience investigator and learns things about the job that is not written in textbooks or on PowerPoint presentations. On the average, a new investigator is on their own in about 10 months. This moment of truth happens when their names are put on two rotating accident call-up lists. The first list is for domestic accident the other is for the foreign."
I then asked Bud what lessons he has learned in this job. Bud came forward in his chair and shared the following lessons that he learned as a manager:
• No matter how much pressure there is, do not release false or unsubstantiated information.
• Be careful with how you use the English language.
• Hire the best and train them well because they will represent the FAA and the United States of America.
• Don’t interfere or second-guess the investigator’s work.
I closed by asking him, "What is the best thing and the worst thing about his job?"
Bud smiled and said, "The best thing is the people I work with — there is no worst thing, I love my job — but don’t tell the higher ups."

Branch Manager Lyle Streeter
Lyle started his aviation career as a line boy, then spent six years in the Navy, an FBO operator, A&P, Commercial Pilot, Multi-engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor. He joined the FAA in 1977 as an air traffic controller and has been an Accident Investigator since 89. In response to my question what was the worst accident, he said any accident in South America that was drug related is bad news. He has been on several. Besides the jungle, which is bad enough, there is the constant threat that the drug dealers want their cargo back and life there is very cheap. What was your most memorable? Lyle said it had to be the Lauda Air 767 that had a thrust reverser deployment in flight on May 26, 1991. As a result of that investigation, a lot of AD and engineering changes were made.
"Lessons learned?" I asked.
"This is what I learned," he said. "Both the weakest and strongest link in the aviation safety chain is the human being. That is both the cause of accidents and the answer to preventing them."

Investigator Bob Henley
Henley has been an investigator for the past 7 years. Bob’s a tough guy who smiles less than I do, and I don’t smile at all. He is professional down to his toes. I know these things because I worked with him for three years when he was in the Aircraft Maintenance Division. Anyway, since I knew him, I decided to get a little personal and ask him what made him apply for the job as an accident investigator. He told me that he did not plan it. During his 39 years in aviation, Bob went from the Air Force as a crew chief, got his A&P mechanic certificate, worked industry as a government inspector, became FAA Manufacturing Inspector, then an FAA Airworthiness Inspector, and then became an Accident Investigator. He said there was no plan to be in accident investigation; it was kind of pre-ordained for him decades ago.
In my response to what was the best accident he was on, he looked at me kind of funny. Then, I clarified it by saying, "What was the accident that you got the most satisfaction or good that came out of it?"
Bob said, without a doubt, it was the Swiss Air MD-11 accident in September of 1998. The Canadians have not issued the probable cause yet, but over 100 Airworthiness Directives on wiring came out because of that accident. The ADs should save some lives. Since Bob is retiring, I asked him what would he share with mechanics in lessons learned as an accident investigator. Bob simply said: "Make sure that you always know what you are doing, and do it in a precise and professional way."

Investigator Victoria Anderson
Ms. Anderson is a Cabin Safety Specialist whose aviation career began working as a Flight Attendant at Branniff International Airlines. She later taught in Branniff’s training department. Anderson joined the FAA at the Dulles FSDO as a Cabin Safety Inspector in 1990 and for the past 8 years has been an Accident Investigator.
I asked her what was the worst accident she worked. Her eyes looked away and then back to mine and said that it was the USAir 427 outside of Pittsburgh. It killed 131 people. In response to my question about what was her most notable accident, she answered that it was the Air Force 737 that Secretary Ron Brown was killed on. Victoria said as a new investigator, she got valuable experience sitting on the board and see how the military, aircraft, and engine manufacturers did business. She smiled when she told me that she got a little respect from the old timers when she pulled some strings and got a hold of the only FAA expert that was familiar with coastal bending of Non-Directional Beacons and got him to participate in the accident investigation.
I asked her what were some of the lessons learned. She said, "Never stop learning, you might need it. Anything can happen."

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