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Reading The Wreckage

Air crash investigators train students to fit little pieces into the big picture.

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An image of a wrecked U.S. Air Force C-119 transport flashes onto the screen.

“What do you see here?” instructor Ray Wall asks.

The students, sitting in a classroom cluttered with a variety of twisted and broken airplane parts, study the image. A few hands hesitantly go up.

“It looks like he overran the runway,” one student says.

“No,” Wall retorts, clearly ready for just that sort of response. “Describe factually what you are seeing, and leave your opinions at home. Your job is to gather the facts—the National Transportation Safety Board members make the interpretations.”

The rest of the hands go down. Wall helps them out: “The right side of the forward fuselage has compression buckling. The props are not feathered. There is substantial deformation with crushing. And see these people walking around? Have they touched anything? You now have a contaminated investigative area.” For this group of 33 aspiring air crash investigators, school has begun.

In a classroom tucked into the third floor of a boxy 1960s government building on the campus of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, they are here to learn how to sort out the aftermath of aviation’s dark side. The class is offered to FAA investigators, airline and military aviation specialists, even new members of the NTSB—anyone who will be on a crash scene gathering evidence to turn over for the official NTSB review. During this six-and-a-half-day introductory course, which is conducted by the Transportation Safety Institute’s (TSI) Aviation Safety Division, the students will absorb lectures, view slides and videos, read radio transcripts, pass around failed engine parts and broken struts, and examine many cautionary case studies. Then, after five days of classroom work, they’ll break into teams and venture into the “boneyard,” a fenced compound containing the transported remains of a half-dozen real crashes that the students will investigate.

First, though, they have to learn the vocabulary. That’s what Wall, a retired NTSB accident investigator with more than a thousand investigations under his belt, is helping them do. When another image hits the screen a short while later—this time a single-engine Cessna—Wall asks the same question and gets a faster, better reply.

“The nose gear is collapsed, and both prop blades are bent,” the student says.

“Good. And what does that tell you?” Wall asks.

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