Why Aviation Safety Experts Don’t Talk About Accidents

When a commercial aircraft is lost, the media erupts in frenetic demands for immediate answers to what happened and why. And often it is everyone but the accident investigators and other aviation safety professionals who are quick to give an opinion.

Their silence is for good reason: It is nearly impossible to know the exact cause of an accident immediately after it happens and speculation about the cause or causes of an accident serves little purpose until the full facts are known. Survivors and the family and friends of the victims are also poorly served by contradictory views that are the result of speculation. Past experience shows that whilst this group wants answers to the questions that they have, a timely answer that is correct is better than a constant stream of opinions and ideas.

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An Airbus 320 accident

On 19 May 2016, EgyptAir Flight MS804, an Airbus 320 traveling from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle to Cairo, failed to complete its journey. Signals vanished from air traffic control screens over the Mediterranean between the Greek island of Crete and the Nile delta near to the point where it should have passed into Egyptian airspace. All 66 people on board lost their lives.

After the plane disappeared from radar, Egyptian military quickly initiated a search for the wreckage. Everyone around the world was clamouring for information. Was it a terrorist attack, a technical failure, was it pilot error?

Even Donald Trump speculated about the accident

Immediately after Flight MS804 went missing, there was considerable speculation about the cause of the crash, including some officials stating with certainty that it could not have been technical problems. By the next day, inaccurate reports of bodies and debris having been recovered were circulating.

The opposite of reticence; US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump had already made up his mind about the cause of the crash on the day it happened. American broadcast network NBC posted a video of Trump using it at a rally that day to fuel terrorism fears, saying, “A plane got blown out of the sky…and if anything, if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you are 100 percent wrong, folks. OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.”

So many possible scenarios

A month later, after the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from EgyptAir Flight MS804 were finally recovered, preliminary reports in the media suggest investigators found evidence of a fire and smoke in the lavatory and avionics bay prior to its crew losing control of the aircraft. As the source of the smoke and fire currently remains unknown, it is impossible to know if it was caused by a technical problem or if it was due to something else on board catching fire. And while it is still possible that the source of the fire could have been some device placed on board by a person intending to destroy the aircraft, there are many other equally plausible scenarios.

The fire could have originated in a number of places on the plane, such as in the cabin, the hold or the toilet, to name just three. Baggage or cargo may have caught fire, say from batteries shorting out. A passenger unintentionally starting a fire in the lavatory with a cigarette, however, seems unlikely as waste bins are protected with extinguishers. The chance of a technical failure to a piece of equipment causing a fire is also remote, although a non-fatal Air Canada Boeing 767 incident in 2002 does come to mind.

What caused the lack of communication?

There has also been some comment about a lack of communication between the pilots and air traffic controllers prior to the crash in the case of flight MS804. But even here there are multiple explanations possible, the first one being that all pilots have a deeply ingrained mantra when it comes to cockpit priorities in an emergency: aviate, navigate, communicate. Their absolute first priority is to stay in the air by regaining control of the aircraft. Second is to navigate so they know where they are going and not fly into a mountain, for instance. Communication comes third. It is important to let others know what is happening, but firefighting is a highly complex task on board of an aircraft. It may have taken up so much of the flight crew’s attention that there was simply no time for communication. Another plausible explanation is that, with a smoke warning in the avionics bay, it is possible the radios were no longer functioning at that point.

No conclusion without evidence and diligence

Without more information, everything is speculation, even this blog. The exact nature of the accident will require a narrative that is unique to this particular incident. The clues slowly coming to light are all the more evidence that aviation safety professionals should always hesitate to make snap judgements about a probable cause.

What remains paramount is that investigators are given the time to obtain as much physical evidence as possible and the space to do their work diligently. Despite the external pressures, a sound accident investigation cannot happen overnight.

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2 thoughts on “Why Aviation Safety Experts Don’t Talk About Accidents

  1. I believe that even experts that take a punt at the cause of an accident without having the full picture are in fact doing something that is innately human – to test the quality of the output of your intuition. It won’t ever stop, being almost like a sport where the person who was proven to be the closest to the right answer may be granted an amount of kudos by ones work colloquies or family and friends. Until it is viewed as taboo to even make a suggestion about cause, only then will it cease to be a pastime. How we could change culturally in this way is the million dollar question.

    1. Hello Bernard,
      Thanks for your message. The idea of this being an innately human ‘pastime’ is interesting. It sounds that the answer to your million dollar question lies with people not directly related to aviation safety – psychologists perhaps.

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