NTSB Process – After the Crash

What happens after The Crash? Fortunately, this is a question only a few people need ask, but it’s good for everyone to know. This discussion will focus on a major accident that destroys the aircraft and results in serious injury or death.

Asiana Airlines accident at San Francisco International Airport (KSFO)

Asiana Airlines accident at San Francisco International Airport (KSFO)

You know from your pilot training that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the agency responsible for investigating aircraft accidents. The NTSB also has the ability to delegate the actual investigation to the FAA for less serious accidents involving general aviation aircraft. When an accident occurs, the NTSB decides if they will investigate or if they will assign the investigation to the FAA.

If an accident is assigned to the FAA, one or two investigators—an operations inspector and/or an airworthiness inspector—gather the facts surrounding the event and send a report to the NTSB for analysis and determination of the cause; but even then, the NTSB determines the cause of the accident, not the FAA. The FAA investigator offers an opinion of the cause of the accident, but the NTSB makes the final determination.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) publishes rules and protocols for all aircraft accident investigations that all member countries adopt into their own regulations, creating a worldwide standard. In the United States, both the NTSB and the Department of Defense have adopted these rules for civilian and military aircraft; they apply to the investigations done by the FAA as well. Let’s look at a situation where the NTSB elects to investigate the accident, either because of the notoriety or the magnitude of the accident.

Under ICAO standards, the investigating authority (the NTSB in the United States) appoints an Investigator-In-Charge (IIC) who assigns technical experts as needed from either the NTSB or FAA, which may include but are not limited to operations specialists (pilots, dispatchers, and mechanics), air traffic control specialists, engineers, medical personnel, and meteorologists. Others have the right to participate in the investigation, if they desire, and are called “Parties to the Investigation”; but ICAO rules strictly define who may ask or be asked to join the investigation. In addition to representatives from the country where the accident occurred, these parties may include representatives from the country where the aircraft was registered (or the country of the operator), the country where the aircraft was designed, and the country or countries where the aircraft and engines were manufactured. The investigating authority can also ask for representatives from the companies that built or operated the airplane. Representatives of people injured or killed in the accident may not be Parties to the Investigation, but may attend public hearings where they may provide input or comments to investigators.

Depending on the accident the NTSB will release a preliminary report with factual information but no analysis two to six weeks after the accident.

Once the investigation is complete, the NTSB publishes a final determination of the cause or causes of the accident along with their recommendations to prevent similar accidenats in the future.  This can take up to a year after the accident. However, they do not release the analysis and reasoning that lead to their conclusion, nor do they determine liability.

If you are a survivor or relative of a crash victim, you will have to go to court and make a case for why someone should pay damages and/or compensation to you. To do this, you will need to hire your own investigator and technical experts to prove your theory of what caused the accident to the judge or jury’s understanding and satisfaction.

If you were the pilot or represent the estate of the pilot involved in an accident you will have to defend claims against you and make claims against others you feel contributed to the accident.

After an aircraft accident, there are two investigations: one by the NTSB, which determines the cause of an accident and makes safety recommendations to prevent future similar accidents, but which does not determine liability for the accident; and the second investigation, wherein those who seek compensation for damages or loss must develop a theory and produce evidence in court to establish their claim. Facts from the NTSB report may be used in this process, but no analysis or findings from the NTSB investigation may be used in the court trial. The court will determine liability and the amount of money the liable party or parties must pay.

The NTSB offers their opinion regarding the cause(s) of an accident based on all the information available to them but they do not have a burden of proof like a claimant does in a court of law when suing for liability and compensation or punitive damages.

I hope you never need this information but, if you do, I hope it helps.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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