Politics and the Art and Science of Crash Investigation

George's Point of View

Should art be mentioned here? Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. Surely this applies to investigation. It is only through imagining the sequence of what happened that what actually happened can be determined. Theoretically, scientific experimentation takes place in a vacuum, or at least in a neutral area where the laws of nature can be observed to run in a natural fashion, after which, conclusions are drawn. Attempts are made for the hypothesis to be untainted by factors such as “opinion,” “bias,” and “prejudice.” But it could not exist without human imagination.

But imagination is far from “imaginary.” Accident investigation is not scientific experimentation, but it is supposed to be based, like science, on handling conclusions based on neutrally observed but hard facts. The problem of course, is that the accidents being investigated do not occur in the careful measured neutrality of a lab, but in the messy, busy, interactivity of the real world. The search for the truth is a crucial thing, one of interest not only to the victims or families of the victims, but also the insurance companies, banks, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, future airline passengers…the list grows. The climate in which investigations take place is far from neutral, in spite of attempts for investigators to be professional.

If you look at the Comoros crash you can see the effects of clashes between the governmental institutions of Comoros and France, replete with name-calling, bias, and politics. This is equally true in the Air France 447 case, where political pressures exert invisible pressures. Consider the stake the country has in Air France, and in Airbus. In any investigation, it may be that the lives and careers of some very powerful people hinge on how an investigation goes, and even more so when a country like France adds the aspect of criminal proceedings.

The well-known world regulatory organizations over aviation industry trade groups (IATA, ICAO, AEA, ATA) have developed highly regulated procedures for investigation. We can only hope that the highly regulated and complex process of investigations can continue in as even a keel as possible, in spite of the turbulence coming from all interested parties. The world waits for answers, but politics inevitably set the stage, and like the observed but unseen air currents in weather, play a part, whether invisible or obvious. While there are some protections in place, (for example, NTSB reports can not be used as evidence lest the integrity investigation be compromised), we can never fully know what goes on behind the scenes.

Originally posted by George Hatcher on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011