The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is an exemplar, perhaps holding a premier position over counterparts in the U.K., France, Canada and Australia by virtue of its range of responsibilities (investigating highway, pipeline, rail and marine, as well as aviation) and the sheer number of probes it performs.
A third differentiator, often trumpeted by board officials, is transparency. Others say little about investigations’ progress, except to address urgent safety matters they identify. The NTSB considers keeping the public informed a key responsibility; this bolsters its moral authority in improving safety. It has no power beyond the “bully pulpit.”
That is one reason the safety board has long held transparency as a core value. Former NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart cites this regularly in “NTSB 101” presentations. He reiterates a commitment to inform the public, in part by ensuring that non-proprietary “factual information is placed in the public docket of the investigation.”
“We are open and honest with the public about our work,” NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt told Keith Cianfrani in last month’s issue, noting that “the docket provides reams of background information for accidents.”
In 30 years of covering NTSB investigations, I have seen transparency’s value. The 1996 disintegration of a Boeing 747 leaving New York killed all on board. Confusion ruled early on. Most involved believed it was a bombing; the NTSB stepped aside for the FBI to lead a criminal probe. But months later, little bomb evidence emerged.
The NTSB delved deeper into a possible catastrophic systems failure. After years of work, including much public discussion, investigators convinced the five board members that a fuel-tank explosion had destroyed TWA 800.
Conspiracy theorists still argue that one, maybe more, terrorist (or U.S. Navy) missiles downed the aircraft. The NTSB’s open and transparent probe has been an effective antidote to those theories.
The NTSB’s transparent history makes its public silence on the Bell Helicopter 525 troubling. The No. 1 prototype crashed July 6, 2016. The board’s posted a barren 71-word description online 23 days later. No update has followed. In February, in our latest query, we posed 12 questions on the probe’s factual findings. The NTSB replied, “We hope to complete the investigation this summer.” We had not asked that.
Had the 525 been a nonfatal airline crash, the NTSB would have updated the public for days. Had it been a “regular” helicopter crash, handled by one investigator, we could have called that person for updates. But the NTSB has placed the 525 probe in a black hole.
Even if its fly-by-wire flight control system — unique for a civil helo — is cleared of involvement, the 525’s design may be haunted by safety doubts bred by the NTSB’s silence. Think of those that persist, fed by doubts of unfamiliar technology, about the Bell Boeing V-22 in the wake of its early crashes.
The safety board should fulfill its promise to inform the public and share factual details of its investigation now. R&WI