BVA Aviation Litigation Blog

15Sep, 11

How Does One Find Out What Caused A Plane Or Helicopter Crash?

The National Transportation Safety Board is the government agency charged with determining the cause of an airplane or helicopter crash.  Generally, a representative of the NTSB will visit the crash site before the wreckage is removed.  The job of the NTSB Investigator-in-Charge (“IIC”) is to gather facts and data that he or she will ultimately submit to the full Board for determination of the final probable cause.

The investigation of an aircraft crash begins with a trip to the crash site by the IIC.  The IIC will take pictures, interview available witnesses and other first responders, and begin gathering aircraft documents and data.   After the IIC is finished at the scene, the wreckage will usually be moved to a secure salvage facility for further examination.

The IIC will then perform a further examination of the wreckage, or certain portions of it, usually in the company of representatives from the aircraft, engine and/or component part manufacturers.  Interestingly, the victims and/or their families are typically not permitted to attend these inspections.  If, during the course of this examination, one or more parts are in need of further examination and testing, the IIC will send the parts to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C. or some other facility where testing can be completed.

The NTSB report regarding a crash goes through three phases.  First, the IIC will issue a Preliminary Report in the days immediately following the crash.  This part of the report generally includes only background information about the flight and the weather, initial witness statements, if available, and any other information that stands out as potentially relevant.

Next comes the Factual Report.  This part of the investigation may take a year or more to complete, depending on the complexity of the circumstances and the workload of the IIC.  The Factual Report includes all of the information, data and test results gathered by the IIC and his team during the course of the investigation.  The complete Factual Report will then be submitted to the full National Transportation Safety Board for review and discussion.

Once the Board has reviewed the file, they will issue a Probable Cause Report.  The Probable Cause report will incorporate the Preliminary and Factual Reports and will usually offer the Board’s conclusions as to what the actual cause of the crash was.  The textual portions of the three phases of reports can be accessed on the NTSB’s web site at

Notwithstanding the above, it should be noted that federal law prevents the NTSB’s conclusions from being admissible in a civil trial.  Additionally, while the investigators and support staff at the NTSB do excellent work, they are often over burdened and under funded.  Thus, it is frequently the case that when a crash victim or their family hires an experienced aviation attorney, the attorney’s investigation reveals new and additional information or perspectives that were not considered or identified by the NTSB.  Therefore, one should not necessarily look to the NTSB’s conclusions and report as the final say when considering a civil action for an aircraft crash.

If you have lost a family member in an aviation accident, please call Aviation Accident Lawyer William Angelley at (214) 826-5400 for a free consultation.  I will simply answer your questions, provide guidance and if I can help you I will.

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