The FAA’s Role in Accident Investigations

As aviators, we all know the NTSB is responsible for investigating aircraft accidents.  Nevertheless, many airmen who are involved in an aircraft accident are surprised to learn that the NTSB is often accompanied by an FAA inspector, or that an FAA inspector is gathering information on behalf of the NTSB.  This often raises two questions: Why is the FAA involved, and what is its role in accident investigations?[1]

Before we dive into answering these questions, it is helpful to remember the NTSB’s role in accident investigations. As mentioned earlier, the NTSB is responsible for investigating all aircraft accidents. In addition, the NTSB must determine the probable cause of the accident[1] and may issue safety recommendations to help prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.[2]

Now, let’s get to it.

To obtain technical assistance, third parties (both public and private) having specialized and relevant knowledge occasionally are allowed to participate in and assist the NTSB with its accident investigation.[3] Unlike other third parties, however, the DOT (i.e., the FAA) has a statutory right to become a party to all NTSB investigations when such participation is required to carry out the duties and powers of the DOT (i.e., of the FAA).[4]  Practically speaking, the FAA has a right to become a party to virtually all aircraft accident investigations since aircraft accidents almost certainly implicate aviation safety and the FAA has the power to investigate matters related to aviation safety.[5] Importantly, while other parties may participate in and assist with an investigation, only the NTSB may establish the probable cause of an accident and no other party – including the FAA – is allowed participate in this determination.[6]

Even while participating in accident investigations in support of the NTSB, the FAA can investigate any aviation safety related issue over which it has authority[7] and may obtain information directly from the parties involved in and witnesses to the accident.[8] Therefore, contemporaneously with the NTSB’s investigation, the FAA is free to conduct its own investigation into any matter concerning aviation safety.[9]  This means the FAA will investigate, among other things, the airworthiness of the aircraft, the competency of the airmen, the airman’s medical qualifications, and any potential violations of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

In addition to investigating for its own purposes, the FAA may be called upon to assist the NTSB directly[10] because the NTSB is not adequately funded and staffed to fully investigate every aircraft accident in its entirety.[11] In these instances, the FAA stands in the shoes of the NTSB and it is the FAA’s responsibility to investigate the accident and report the facts and circumstances to the NTSB.[12] When the NTSB calls on the FAA to act, the FAA has the same authority as the NTSB, but the NTSB retains control of the investigation.[13] This means the FAA will, in coordination with the NTSB, secure the accident site; examine evidence; interview witnesses and collect statements; collect, document, and retain aircraft wreckage; and report all information to the NTSB. Again, the NTSB remains responsible for determining probable cause, not the FAA.

To decide which accident investigations will be handled by the FAA, the NTSB has a standing request for the FAA to investigate aircraft accidents meeting the below criteria:

[A]ll civil aircraft accidents involving rotorcraft, aerial application, amateur-built aircraft, restricted category aircraft, and all fixed-wing aircraft which have a certificated maximum gross takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less except:

  1. Accidents in which fatal injuries have occurred to an occupant of such aircraft, but shall include accidents involving fatalities incurred as a result of aerial application operations, amateur-built aircraft operations, or restricted category aircraft operations.
  2. Accidents involving aircraft operated in accordance with the provisions of Part 135 of the Federal Air Regulations entitled “Air Taxi Operators and Commercial Operators of Small Aircraft.”
  3. Accidents involving aircraft operated by an air carrier authorized by certificate of public convenience and necessity to engage in air transportation.
  4. Accidents involving midair collisions.[14]

Of course, there are exceptions to the above and the NTSB may call on the FAA to investigate any accident.

In short, the FAA is involved in virtually all aircraft accidents since it is typically a required party. The role the FAA plays depends on several factors and could include investigating issues concerning aviation safety or investigating the accident itself and relaying the facts and circumstances to the NTSB.  Regardless of the manner of the investigation, it is vital that any airman involved in an accident consults with an experienced aviation attorney as soon as possible.

For a closer look into the FAA investigative procedures and responsibilities concerning aircraft accidents, take a look at FAA Order No. 8020.11D. If you are involved in an aircraft accident, call the AOPA Legal Services Plan at 1-800-872-2672.

[1] 49 U.S.C. § 1131(a).

[2] 49 U.S.C. § 1135.

[3] 49 C.F.R. § 831.11(a).

[4] 49 U.S.C. § 1132(c) and 49 C.F.R. § 831.21(a).

[5] 49 U.S.C. § 40113(a).

[6] 49 U.S.C. §§ 1131(a)(2)(a) and 1132(c).

[7] 49 U.S.C. § 1132(c).

[8] 49 U.S.C. § 1131(a)(3).

[9] 49 U.S.C. § 40113.

[10] 49 U.S.C. § 1131(c).

[11] 49 C.F.R. Part 800, Appendix.

[12] 49 U.S.C. § 1131(c).

[13] 49 C.F.R. § 831.21(d).

[14] 49 C.F.R. Part 800, Appendix.

photos of AOPA employee Ian Arendt

Ian Arendt

Ian Arendt is an in-house attorney with AOPA’s Legal Services Plan. He provides initial consultations to aircraft owners and pilots facing aviation related legal issues through the LSP. Ian is a private pilot and aircraft owner. The AOPA Legal Services plan is offered as part of AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services.
Topics: Accident

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