What aircraft accident investigators really think about flying

Aircraft accident investigators play a pivotal role in improving safety and furthering advancement in the aviation industry. And yet, in the course of their jobs, they witness some of the most catastrophic and devastating examples of what can and does go wrong.

While the statistics tells us that flying is safe (2017 was the safest year on record for commercial passenger air travel), it seems arguable that being subjected to the worst-case scenario on a frequent basis might have the potential to skew your viewpoint.

So, what do aircraft accident investigators really think about flying?

Commercial aviation versus general aviation

When most people think of flying, they think of commercial aviation – that is to say, scheduled air transport. General aviation, on the other hand, covers everything else (except military aviation).

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spends a substantial amount of time inspecting all areas of the operations and working within the commercial airline industry to continually improve safety standards. All major airlines are licensed and regulated and hold an Air Operator's Certificate (AOC). The CAA monitors and inspects UK airlines on a regular basis, to ensure that stringent safety standards are upheld.

Alan Parmenter, manager at the Safety and Accident Investigation Centre at Cranfield University and former investigating officer at the Royal Navy Accident and Investigation Centre, says that he draws a clear line in the sand between commercial aviation and general aviation: "The former is highly regulated and safety focused, while the latter, for me, is far less so.

"Despite working in a professional discipline that focuses on 'when things go horribly wrong', I also know that, statistically, commercial flying is far safer than driving my car and I understand and accept the level of risk that I’m exposing myself and my family to. Conversely, with general aviation, I have no mechanism to judge the competency of the pilot(s) or the material state of the aircraft so the risk outweighs the benefit.

"Granted, there are probably some commercial airlines and countries I wouldn’t fly with based on their poor safety record but, again, it’s a balance of risk. Sometimes, for instance when I went trekking in Nepal, you have no option but to accept a higher level of risk when flying as it’s a 'means to an end'."

The complexity of high-profile plane crashes

Fearful flyers may find themselves catastrophising every time they hear an unusual sound or experience an unpleasant movement during a plane journey. However, the fact is, the majority of high-profile plane crashes cannot be attributed to a single factor – while there might be an identifiable catalyst, there is generally a long chain of events leading to the fatal outcome.

This is something that Christine Negroni, the US aviation and travel writer, explained in an interview with JDA Journal: "There is the system of the airport, the system of the airline and the computer technology, the way the computer interacts with the human, the way the gate agent rushes the pilot: 'Hurry, hurry, we have to take off', the schedule. So many factors contribute to things going wrong that in trying to explain aviation disasters and aviation accident investigations it’s very important to first start giving people an idea of the complexity of the system so they don’t oversimplify. Because that reinforces the idea to the general public that there is either a human who screwed things up or a bad machine. That it’s one or the other but of course it’s not."

For aircraft accident investigators, their intimate awareness of this complexity can be a good thing. Yes, things can and do go wrong – but it’s the exception and not the rule.

Keeping perspective

Graham Braithwaite is professor of safety and accident investigation at Cranfield University, having worked in the field since 1990. He says that early in his career, he started to become a more nervous flyer as he became more aware of past accidents, but as he became more experienced, he developed a broader perspective, especially of all of the efforts that go into making aviation as safe as it is.

"Knowing how hard all of the various parties work together to learn from incidents and accidents rather than trying to shift blame or deny responsibility really helped me. Safety lessons are freely shared, even between rival airlines and across the worldwide aviation community. Employees are encouraged to report the hazards they spot or even the errors they make so that steps can be taken to make it less likely that they will happen again."

Having said that, Graham has some self-imposed rules for flying: "I never fly in shorts and always keep my shoes on for take-off and landing – in case I need to go down an evacuation slide. I always count the seats between me and the available exit and choose to sit in the exit row if possible. I always listen attentively to the safety briefing – mainly to try and encourage less frequent flyers around me to listen, although a few times it has led to the cabin crew asking if I am a nervous flyer! I keep my seatbelt fastened low and tight and as soon as the aircraft is safely climbing away from the airport, I stick my eye-mask on, pop some earplugs in and try and sleep to the destination. I find flying a relaxing and rejuvenating experience!"

So, while accident investigators might religiously adhere to certain safety practices when they board an aircraft, they also likely realise that all of life involves risks and that, sometimes, the best thing to do is sit back, order a drink and take each moment as it comes.

Competency framework