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First Response to Aircraft Accidents,
Civil Aircraft Accident Strategies and Guidelines

by Rick Lee
Article reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

The possibility of the average person being among the first to arrive at the scene of an aircraft accident is probably too insignificant to be quantified. Working at an airport significantly increases your prospects of having to deal with an accident, but it will still be a rare event. When it does happen, however, you need to be prepared to respond. The first few minutes after an accident has happened are crucial to not only the persons directly involved, but also the unknown individuals who may potentially find themselves in a similar situation in the future. We will discuss some guidelines and strategies, with regard to aircraft accidents that may ultimately save lives.

This information was developed for airport managers, airport personnel, and aviation people who are likely to be among the first to arrive on an aircraft accident scene. The discussion will cover four basic areas: notification and reporting, controlling the accident scene, interfacing with the investigators, and an overview of accident investigation process.

Notification and Reporting

The regulatory requirements for reporting of accidents, incidents, overdue aircraft, and preservation of aircraft wreckage, mail cargo, and records are contained in Title 49 U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 830 (49 CFR 830), commonly referred to as "NTSB 830." This is a fairly brief and very informative document, which should be readily available to all airport personnel as well as aircraft owners and pilots. Having this document in hand will settle a lot of discussions as to what the definition of an "accident" is and what the requirements are.

NTSB 830 requires the operator of an aircraft to immediately notify the NTSB in the following instances:

  • Accident
  • Flight control malfunction or failure
  • Flight crew incapacitation
  • Turbine engine structural failure
  • In-flight fire
  • In flight collision
  • Property damage in excess of $25,000.00
  • Aircraft overdue and believed to be involved in an accident

Although notification is the operator's responsibility, the important issue is that someone notifies the proper authorities.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Ghostbusters don't care about aircraft accidents, but the FAA and NTSB do. There are several numbers to call with notification, regardless of your location:

  • Local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO)
  • Any area Flight Service Station
  • Any area Air Traffic Control Tower
  • FAA Safety Hotline (1-800-255-1111)

Do Not Disturb

Information on preservation of wreckage, among other things, is found in 49 CFR 830.10. The wreckage should not be disturbed until the NTSB takes custody, except under the following circumstances:

  • To remove injured or trapped persons
  • To protect the wreckage from further damage
  • To protect the public

People Come First

The initial concern at any accident should be for the well being of the occupants and any other people directly involved. When assisting in the removal of trapped persons, try to minimize the possibility of further injuries by controlling the number of people involved in the rescue. Trained and experienced rescue personnel should be utilized whenever possible. Exercise personal protection protocols at all times. It is in no one's best interest for you to become a victim yourself.

In the event of fatalities, the bodies may be removed before the arrival of NTSB or FAA investigators. It is of great assistance, though, to document the positioning of the bodies and to take note of what was done to the wreckage to facilitate removal.

Protect Yourself

At any given accident site, there are potentially numerous personal hazards that may be encountered. Always remember that, unless you have a really good reason to get personally involved with the accident site, like getting the injured out, leave the accident site to the experts! However, the more knowledge that you have about aircraft systems, the better you will be able to defend yourself from personal injury and illness.

Battery electrolytes are likely to be encountered in almost every accident. There are two types of batteries in common use, lead-acid and nickel-cadmium. Both contain an ionic electrolyte, which is corrosive and can cause physical injury. The lead-acid electrolyte is basically sulfuric acid and is extremely harmful to come in contact with it. The nickel-cadmium electrolyte is less aggressive, but should still not be allowed to come in contact with any part of your body or clothing. The Ni-Cad is primarily found in turbine engine equipment. In recent years, however, many aircraft operators are converting to the lead-acid type for economic reasons. The point is that either type may be encountered and you should not get involved with the battery system unless you know what you are dealing with.

Fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids may also be encountered. Though most are basically benign, you do not want to ingest any or let them come in contact with any soft membranes [i.e. eyes]. The larger jet aircraft frequently use "Skydrol" for hydraulic fluid. This is a corrosive and should be avoided much the same as battery acids.

Many aircraft are equipped with high pressure bottles containing oxygen, nitrogen, compressed air, or fire extinguishing agent. Care should be taken when working around these bottles. Remembering that oxygen bottles are color-coded green and that nitrogen bottles are color-coded black will improve your safety margin. The key concern with fire extinguisher containers is that most use an explosive cartridge to release the bottle contents. The most common agent will be an inert gas, but a discharge in a confined area will displace the oxygen in the air and may cause breathing distress.

Always be aware of the fact there may be high pressure fluids trapped in lines or hoses on the aircraft. It is not uncommon to have pressures of 2,000 to 3,000 psi present in some aircraft.

Bloodborne pathogens, which can potentially cause serious illness, must always be considered. Use personal protection protocols to prevent contact with any blood or bodily fluid. The rule of thumb we use in the FAA is: " If it's wet and it's not yours, don't touch it!"

The best way to prevent becoming a victim yourself is to be prepared before the accident ever happens. Visit a local aviation facility and familiarize yourself with the basic types of aircraft and aircraft systems. Particular attention should be paid to egress areas and identification of hazardous materials and components. There are several "First Responder" training courses currently available in the industry.

Secure the Scene

Controlling the environment of the accident is important to the investigation process as well as to the safety of the affected personnel. As previously discussed, the scene should be disturbed only to the extent necessary to facilitate rescue operations. Once that is accomplished, the scene should remain untouched until the NTSB or FAA arrive. If overnight security is required, the local law enforcement or Civil Air Patrol wing are resources that are frequently used.

Access to the scene should be limited to individuals who have a need to be there. These include:

  • FAA investigators
  • NTSB investigator
  • State aviation personnel
  • Law enforcement personnel
  • Rescue personnel as required

After rescue operations are complete, no one should be allowed access to the scene without proper identification. FAA and NTSB investigators will identify themselves with proper credentials upon arrival on the scene, even though they may be dressed in casual or work clothing and may not be wearing any external identification. Neither FAA nor NTSB delegate the on-site investigation to local representatives.

When interfacing on scene with the FAA and NTSB, there are some guidelines to follow. The investigation process must be objective. Try to avoid expressing personal opinions or suspicions when briefing investigators. The people who need to know the facts are the NTSB Investigator In Charge [IIC], the FAA IIC, and the ranking local law enforcement officer, if present. Law enforcement personnel, as well as FAA and NTSB, will inspect airman or aircraft records and certificates.

In many cases, the news media is present at the scene. They have their own job to do, but caution should be exercised with regard to what information they are privy to. No real conclusions are going to be made at the scene, so be careful that any comments you may make do not become news items and portrayed as fact. If you do choose to be interviewed, give out only factual information that you know to be true.

Accident Investigation Basics

Although the FAA and NTSB cooperate completely, they are actually running two parallel investigations. The NTSB is tasked with determining the probable cause and causal factors in the accident. The FAA provides technical support and their investigation determines if any areas over which the FAA has oversight are involved. The NTSB has overall responsibility for the accident.

In most cases, the FAA will be first on scene, since they are responding from the local FSDO. The FAA IIC will be in contact with the NTSB and can make decisions under delegation from them. If there are any financial resources to be expended in the investigation, the NTSB will make those decisions. All information acquired is important. Aside from determining how and why the accident happened, enough background information must be obtained to facilitate actions and recommendations to prevent further occurrences.

In the event of a major crash with significant loss of life, the same notification protocols should be used. The local FSDO should have a "Disaster Plan" to deal with such a situation, just as all airports should have an emergency plan for dealing with accident situations.


The key to successfully handling an accident at your airport is managing your resources. No one has all the answers committed to memory. Knowing who to contact and where to find help is paramount. But remember, FAA and NTSB investigators will always be in charge of an aircraft accident. They may call for assistance from local law enforcement, Civil Air Patrol, or local rescue and emergency professionals. The most important thing to do is be prepared. When the accident happens, the adrenaline will be flowing and a lot will be happening. The key is to stop, assess the situation, and devise an initial plan before leaping into action. The time you spend preparing for the accident you hope will never happen may save lives when it does.

Remember the Lives We Save...

  • May be those of the crash victims.
  • May be those of the potential crash victims of the accident that we prevent.
  • May be our own.

Rick Lee is the Airworthiness Safety Program Manager at the Baltimore FSDO.

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