Maybe a gusty crosswind forced you off the runway. Perhaps a mechanical glitch led you to lose control at precisely the wrong moment. Or, gasp, a momentary lapse of judgment might have led your airplane in the wrong direction.
Now your pride and joy is a little worse for wear. The landing gear is collapsed and the prop is bent. Or maybe a wing ripped off and a passenger is injured. What now?
Just how you handle the first moments after an accident may have a profound bearing on the rest of your flying career. There are things you must do, things you should do and things you should avoid.
The governments definition of what constitutes an accident covers a broad range from minor dings to fatal events, so not every accident will involve the same tactics. But as a general rule, treat the accident as if it were a serious event, even if you think it was a minor incident.
The Must Do List
After dealing with immediate problems such as injuries or extinguishing fire, the next step is set out by federal regulation. Call the nearest field office of the National Transportation Safety Board. If the accident occurs at a controlled airport or while in contact with air traffic control, an initial call will be made by the controller. But it is still the responsibility of the pilot or operator to contact the NTSB as soon as possible.
The rules governing accident reporting are found in NTSB Regulation 830. These are NTSB regs because the NTSB, not the FAA, is charged with investigating aircraft accidents, regardless of whether the aircraft is large or small. Very often the investigation work will be delegated to the FAA, but the NTSB has the responsibility to decide.
Regulation 830 is federal law and is not to be ignored, and dont say you never saw it just because its not an FAA reg. Accident reporting requirements of the NTSB is an aeronautical knowledge item for Recreational through Commercial pilot certificates. Many pilots have long since forgotten what the rules are or even where to find them. Regulation 830 includes notification and reporting requirements for the pilot or operator and the law regarding the preservation of records.
The regulations require preservation of the wreckage. The aircraft operator is responsible for maintaining the accident scene intact until the NTSB or FAA take over. Once any occupants are removed, the aircraft should remain undisturbed and no one should be allowed to remove anything. If that means closing the runway or taxiway, so be it.
Local law enforcement agencies should be called to the scene to help maintain security, but the operator also must preserve all maintenance, operating and pilot records. Keep in mind that the NTSB has broad powers to require anyone in possession or control of any pertinent records, facility or equipment to permit inspection, photographing or copying. Furthermore, the investigator may question any person having knowledge relevant to an aircraft accident or incident.
If such interrogation is requested, you have the right to be accompanied, represented or advised by your lawyer. In any event, it would be smart to tape record or take notes on what you say. In addition, always keep a copy of any written statements you give to anyone in connection with the accident or the investigation.
Within 10 days after an accident, the pilot or operator is required to file a report with the NTSB field office nearest the accident site. A specific form is used, and you may expect this will be provided to you by the investigator-in-charge. The information requested is factual – data regarding the aircraft, pilot experience, type of flight operation, flight weather conditions and a narrative history of the flight.
Be forewarned: There is a space on the form entitled Recommendation (How Could This Accident Have Been Prevented) Be extremely wary of incriminating yourself. You may feel like saying, This accident could have been prevented if I had maintained control of the aircraft after touchdown or … if I had not attempted landing in such a crosswind. No, no, no.
This data block is marked Optional Entry. You do not have to give any recommendation. Even if you do, what you write is less likely to prevent future accidents than it is to come back as evidence against you.
The regs require each crewmember to attach a statement to the report form. If you are preparing a statement this again is a time when you would be smart to limit yourself to strict compliance with the regulation requirements.
According to 830.15(b), the statement should contain the facts, conditions and circumstances as they appear to the crewmember. If you are the one writing the statement, set forth those items, and those items only. Do not include opinions.
If you start to write, I think the cause was … you are setting yourself up for trouble later. By nature, pilots often want to blame themselves. While it might make you feel better to lay the fault on yourself, remember that these statements become part of a public document. Its not unusual for a lawsuit to follow an accident. At trial, the crewmember statements will be evidence, and you can be certain that if there is any way to use the statement to assign pilot negligence, that will happen.
Very often, first impressions of what went wrong are incorrect and the actual cause is not at all as it first appeared. Nevertheless, there it is months or years later: your statement in black and white, pointing a liability finger at the wrong guy. Leave the guessing out of your statement.
When the investigation is complete, the NTSB will publish a report containing facts and its conclusion about the probable cause of the accident. The probable cause finding is based on months, even years, of Board investigation and testing of the wreckage and evaluation of the accident facts.
The finding will list the elements or factors that, in the opinion of the Safety Board, constitute the probable cause of the accident. Interestingly, this finding of probable cause is not admissible at any civil trial. This is because the NTSB staff is independent and their work is not intended to aid one side or the other in litigation.
The rest of the NTSB accident report, less the probable cause finding, is admissible at a trial. The reason for this is that often the aircraft is moved or the engine or prop or some component is disassembled in the course of the NTSB investigation. Thus, the NTSB report is the only evidence of the condition of the aircraft or item immediately after the accident and before removal or teardown.
Dont overlook a call to the aircraft insurer if you have hull damage insurance and want to submit a claim for the cost of repairs. Even if you have just liability coverage on your policy, you must inform the insurer.
A claims representative will examine the wreckage, copy records and generally arrange for storing the aircraft after it is released by the NTSB. You must cooperate with the insurer. As part of the insurance contract, you probably agreed to assist the insurance company in investigating the accident.
You will have to complete a claim form and a statement and to produce aircraft and pilot records. As with the NTSB investigation, any statement you give should contain facts as you personally know them, not second-hand information or speculation. Again, avoid opinions and be sure to keep a copy of whatever you write.
The representative will check the aircraft logs to be sure airworthiness requirements were met and will look over the pilots logbook and certificates to be sure the pilot was current and met the qualifications required by the policy.
Depending on the policy terms and your claim, the owner can expect help in arranging for repairs and reimbursement. If the plane is so badly damaged that it will be totaled, the insurance company will pay the hull damage coverage to the owner and lienholder and, after that, the insurance company owns the plane.
The wreckage may be sold for scrap or salvaged for rebuilding, or it may be put in storage for possible use as evidence in a trial.
The Oughta Do List
The should do items are, to some extent, done with an eye to the future assignment of liability for the damage or injury. Aircraft damage is very expensive to repair and accidents often result in injury or death. Unless youre sure this is some minor event not likely to lead to any claims, contact a lawyer with personal experience in aviation or with prior experience in aviation lawsuits.
This is particularly important if the FAA has notified the pilot or operator that an investigation of the event is underway to determine if there has been a violation of Federal Aviation Regulations. The procedural rules applicable to FAA enforcement actions are different from regular civil trial law procedures, and the unwary can miss a deadline or fail to claim one of the limited rights accorded a pilot or operator.
Either you or your lawyer need to take immediate steps to gather evidence. All work orders, invoices or other papers indicating inspection, installation of equipment or repair of the aircraft should be gathered. Take photos. If time permits, make copies of the aircraft and pilot logbooks for yourself before the NTSB or FAA takes them.
At a minimum, you should have your own copy of the aircraft, engine and prop logs back to the last annual inspection and pilot logbook entries far enough back in time to show currency. Printouts of weather information, flight plan data, weight and balance calculations and all pilot notes taken both before and during the flight should be preserved. Names, addresses and phone numbers of all who were aboard the aircraft or who witnessed the accident should be obtained.
ATC Communications and Radar Data
Call the nearest Flight Standards District Office for information about obtaining a copy of ATC communications with the aircraft through the federal Freedom of Information Act. Radio communications and radar data are routinely recorded and the tapes preserved by the FAA for about two weeks.
If ATC is aware that an accident is involved, the raw data may be held for a much longer time. If there is any possibility that a civil negligence claim or an FAA enforcement action involving the pilot or operator may be brought, immediate steps should be taken to submit a FOIA request for cassette copies of the communications and printouts of the radar tracking data. The cost is minimal. The FSDO cannot provide the material, but can tell you who to contact at the FAA Regional Office.
Whats an Accident?
If all this makes you think you need to call the feds for every nick and scratch, think again. According to the governments definitions, not all accidents are accidents. No, thats not doubletalk.
From a regulatory and a legal aspect, an accident involves a significant amount of injury or damage, as defined by NTSB Regulation 830.
Does this mean that when you crunch your wingtip into a lightpost while taxiing, or you blow a tire and damage your landing gear when you go off the runway, or you curl your prop and scrape the aircraft belly because you forgot to put the gear down, you must rush to telephone the nearest office of the NTSB? Probably not.
None of those unpleasant happenings qualify as an accident under the NTSBs definition of the word. Regulation 830.2, Definitions, includes three measures to determine if an aircraft event meets the NTSB criteria to be identified as an accident.
First, whatever happened must have happened while someone was onboard with the intention of flight or who had not yet disembarked after a flight. Thus, a problem arising while you taxi the aircraft from your hangar or tiedown to the wash rack, does not qualify. Second, there must be death or serious injury or third, the aircraft must receive substantial damage.
Serious injury is defined at 830.2 and the specific wording is best consulted if this point is in question. It is the definition of substantial damage – or more particularly, what is not substantial damage – that is the most help. For example, damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps and wingtips and ground damage to props is not considered substantial damage for the purpose of reporting an accident. And in defining substantial damage, the regs are concerned with aircraft damage, not damage to trucks, cars, buildings and such.
Events not defined as accidents are incidents, and most do not have to be reported. However, they must be reported under certain circumstances. If the flight controls malfunctioned, the NTSB wants to know. A report is also required if an required crewmember was unable to function due to injury or illness. Other incidents required to be reported include failure of structural components in turbine aircraft, inflight fire, midair collisions and damage to property other than the airplane that exceeds $25,000.
The $25,000 in damage figure relates only to damage to property other than the aircraft, such as damage the aircraft causes to a vehicle or a building, or a herd of cows when you put her down in a pasture. The cost of repairing the involved aircraft are not a measure of whether or not an accident or an incident has occurred.
Why make the distinction? Why not just report everything as an accident and let the NTSB split the legal hairs?
Well, besides causing unnecessary work for the NTSB, your pilot record is also at stake. If the time comes to apply for a flying job you may be asked to describe any accidents you have been involved in. In essence, you have not had an accident if what happened does not meet the NTSB definition of an accident. In addition, an accident record may increase your insurance rates. You may think its a lawyers play on words, but it is in your best interest to use care in what you call an accident.
Some Gentle Request
If the event, whether an accident or otherwise, may have involved pilot proficiency or knowledge, you may receive a request from the FAA for reexamination. For example, if you lose control during landing and end up off the runway with wingtip or prop strike damage, the FAA may become concerned about your competency.
You may receive a certified letter requesting you make an appointment for re-examination in the area of concern. Dont ignore this. While the letter may not appear threatening, the FAA is quite serious. If you fail to comply, the gentle request will often be followed by an Emergency Order immediately suspending your pilot certificate.
The request does not force you to be tested immediately. Unless an emergency order is issued, your pilot certificate remains effective and you should practice the particular maneuver or phase of flight that is the subject of the FAAs request, even if you think youre competent. But go further than that. Its best to prepare as though you were going for the initial examination for your certificate, because once the examiner has you there he or she is entitled to test you on any skill or knowledge required by your certificate(s) or rating(s).
If the re-examination involves actual flight, it is your responsibility to provide the aircraft. Generally, repeat tries are allowed if the examiner is not satisfied the first time, but of course this only adds to your stress and expense.
Although no one wants to dwell on the possibility, it wont harm you to think ahead about how to handle an accident. An accident response plan may be in your mind, but should also be known by a friend or relative who is likely to be questioned or asked for documentation. Even the most minor event can be stressful and is not the time to ask What should we do now?
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Your Get Out of Jail Free Card.”
-by Robert P. Smith
Robert P. Smith, a former naval aviator and airline flight ops instructor, is an attorney and CFI.