Accident Investigation

ALPA at 90

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

The resulting investigation into this 1934 accident, which Capt. David Behncke survived, convinced the ALPA founder that an independent safety board was necessary.

Editor’s note: This year marks the 90th anniversary of ALPA’s founding. As “the conscience of the airline industry,” the Association has been at the forefront of advocating for safety and security advancement to protect pilots and their passengers and cargo. In each issue of Air Line Pilot, a technology or topic that the union has championed will be highlighted.

Three years after ALPA’s founding, Capt. David Behncke, then the Association’s president, departed from Chicago, Ill., on Dec. 21, 1934, on his regular run. After flying 10 minutes westward, his aircraft’s engines failed although his cockpit instruments still registered normal.

Behncke was forced to land in treetops at night. Miraculously, only he suffered injuries, and the aircraft was able to be repaired. After his first serious accident in nearly 20 years of flying, Behncke had no doubt that if “my copilot and I had not lived to defend ourselves, ‘pilot error’ would have been given as the cause of the crash.”

He formulated the argument that only pilots could speak for aviation safety because only pilots had the same interests as the traveling public. According to him, government officials were too closely tied to the industry they supposedly regulated. When it came to investigating accidents, Behncke suspected they often conspired with airline operators to fix the blame on the fallen aviators. Given the short history of aviation and the long list of accidents attributed to poor pilot judgment, his argument seemed plausible, especially in light of the revolving door between the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that oversaw aviation regulations at the time, and the airlines themselves, and the fact the agency not only wrote the rules, but had the authority to investigate itself.

Seeking to eliminate the conflict of interests, Behncke and ALPA advocated for an independent federal agency to investigate accidents.

Gathering Strength

A pair of high-profile airline accidents—the 1935 crash of a TWA flight in Kansas, Mo., that killed Sen. Bronson Cutting, and the 1936 crash of a Northwest Airlines flight in Idaho—provided Behncke with a platform from which to criticize both the operators and government bureaucrats regarding safety. And he made his voice heard loud and clear when the Bureau of Air Commerce held a public hearing on airline safety in February 1937. It was supposed to be a combination conference/investigation that permitted public input, but in reality gaining access to speak was difficult as participation was limited to individuals who were directly associated with safety.

Due to the Association’s increasing political influence, Behncke was included on the speakers’ list, although ALPA had been excluded from participating in the accident investigations because the Bureau of Air Commerce contended that the Association wasn’t an interested party.

A year later, the Civil Aeronautics Administration was established, and ALPA became recognized and valued as a full partner in safety. In addition, an independent safety board was created as a part of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. The first appointee to the new Air Safety Board was Tom Hardin, a pilot who was ALPA’s first vice president and second in command to Behncke.

However, the Air Safety Board’s independence lasted only 14 months. In 1940, it was transferred to the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Board’s Bureau of Aviation Safety. With the advent of a second world war, the advancement of jet engine technology, and the heavy regulation of the airline industry, the quest for aviation safety independence seemed a distant concern.

A New Flight Path to Safety

In 1966, Congress created a new cabinet department, the Department of Transportation (DOT), that became operational the following year, along with several independent agencies including the FAA and the NTSB, both established within the DOT.

The NTSB absorbed the Bureau of Aviation Safety’s responsibilities, and in 1974 it was completely separated from the DOT to ensure independent investigations free of any potential conflict of interest.

In order to conduct its investigations, the NTSB operates under the “party system,” which utilizes the support and participation of government agencies and industry and labor organizations—like ALPA—that can provide qualified technical expertise to its investigation. The NTSB investigator-in-charge (IIC) designates these groups as “interested parties.” The IIC has discretion over which organizations are allowed to participate—with the exception of the FAA, which has a statutory right to participate.

A vital member for ALPA in the early years of the NTSB was Capt. Don McClure (Eastern, Dec.). He served the Association for 52 years, first as a pilot representative and accident investigator for the Eastern Airlines Master Executive Council and then on ALPA’s Accident Investigation Board. After retiring from airline flying, McClure continued his lifelong passion for air safety at ALPA, working in the Engineering & Air Safety Department before he passed away in 2017. He participated in numerous investigations with the NTSB, including the 1972 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Florida Everglades and the 1974 crash of TWA Flight 514 on Mount Weather in Virginia.

Training New Safety Leaders

Today, ALPA continuously tracks dozens of accident investigations at the NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, working to place airline pilots on the investigations where their expertise can make a contribution.

To ensure the best possible service to the safety boards and fellow pilots, ALPA conducts a three-part training program designed to prepare ALPA pilots to participate in serious incidents and major aircraft accident investigations conducted by the NTSB and the TSB.

The Association’s capstone course, the Advanced Accident Investigation Course (AAIC), was first held in 2003 and was centered around the wreckage of a four-seat, single-engine airplane that was donated by a salvage company.

However, the inherent limitations of using a small aircraft soon became apparent. When an actual B-727 hull was donated by FedEx Express to the Grand Forks Airport Authority for training airport rescue and firefighter teams and law enforcement officers, the ALPA instructors recognized the unique opportunity it presented for teaching future investigators. After obtaining permission from the airport authority to use the airplane, ALPA’s AAIC was, according to F/O Steve Demko (United), the course director and a former NTSB accident investigator, the only such course at the time to use a full-scale transport-category aircraft. “Having access to this amazing training asset truly sets this course apart from most other courses offered.”

During the four-day course, investigator trainees are assigned to teams to work the simulated accident site with instructing pilots from ALPA’s Air Safety Organization acting as NTSB investigators. Participants receive hands-on training in documenting aircraft systems and structural damage, transcribing the cockpit voice recorder, and participating in an Operational Factors Group that includes interviewing the flight crew and reviewing the numerous documents, such as weather and pilot training records, that are gathered in an investigation.

“This unique course setting allows ALPA investigators to experience the process of an accident investigation—starting from the call to the site and asking for party status at the organizational meeting to working onsite to measure the length of tire marks and jackscrews,” said Demko. “But more importantly, it teaches pilots how to interact in investigative groups during the on-scene phase and to be an asset to the process.”

Leadership at the Top

One of the greatest recognitions of ALPA’s leadership in aviation safety and accident investigation is showcased in where some of the Association’s members lead. One example is Capt. Robert Sumwalt (US Airways, Ret.) who in August 2017 was sworn in as the 14th chair of the NTSB after first joining the board in 2006.

As an ALPA member, Sumwalt served as an air safety representative for 17 years. He chaired ALPA’s Human Factors & Training Group and co-founded the Association’s Critical Incident Response Program, which provides guidance to airline personnel involved in traumatic events such as accidents.

Behncke’s vision of pilots being the mightiest voice in aviation safety has demonstrably become true. And today, ALPA’s voice as the most influential safety advocate in aviation continues to be recognized and valued.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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