NTSB: “ALL Questions Must Be Answered…NOT!”

One of your flights has run off the runway…or maybe one of your aircraft had an aborted takeoff and your crew commanded an emergency evacuation.  Even worse, an accident has occurred and there were fatalities.

One thing all of these events share in common, whether classified as an accident or an incident 49 CFR § 830.2 (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2011-title49-vol7/xml/CFR-2011-title49-vol7-sec830-2.xml), is that the company has to complete and file an NTSB Form 6120.1 Pilot/Operator Aircraft Accident/Incident Report.

The requirement for the filing of this report is found in 49 CFR § 830.5 (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div8&node=49:7.1.4.1.12.2.1.1).  That regulation requires the filing of the report “within ten (10) days after an accident.”

Form 6120.1 states:

The Pilot/Operator Accident/Incident Form is used in determining the facts, conditions, and circumstances for aircraft accident prevention activities and for statistical purposes.  It is necessary that ALL questions be answered completely and accurately to serve the above purposes.

Despite the foregoing instructions, the fact is that it is impossible, as well as inappropriate to answer all questions “completely and accurately” within 10 days.  The sections of the report which are problematic include, “Mechanical Malfunction Failure”, pg. 4, where you’re asked “Was there Mechanical Malfunction/Failure” and, if there was, describe it.  The proper answer is “The events are under investigation by the NTSB.”  Similarly, the very next section also asks about “Aircraft Fire” and “Aircraft Explosion”.  Neither should be answered when an investigation is on-going.

Similar problems present themselves for a number of other sections, including that asking for a “Description of Damage to the Aircraft and Other Property;” in the “Evacuation of Aircraft” section, “Method of Exit-Describe how the occupants exited and how many occupants evacuated each location;” the entire “Weather Information” section and, most notably, the sections entitled “Narrative History of Flight” and “Recommendation (How could this accident/incident have been prevented?).

In the case of many airlines or commercial operators, this form is completed by the company’s Safety Department.  If the ten day limit is observed, the form is being completed while the investigation is just getting started.  The form is, strictly speaking, calling for speculation.

Irrespective of who, when or how this form is completed, be sure to observe the following:

-Provide only “hard” facts

-If your narrative description of the accident is more than one or two sentences, it’s too long

-Don’t include any “conclusions,” i.e. was there a mechanical malfunction or what malfunctioned, cause or source of a fire, weather factors or conditions unknown to the crew, etc.

-Don’t include any “recommendations,” i.e. we recommend changing procedures or training.

-Always have the draft report reviewed by legal counsel.  This report is subject to disclosure under The Freedom of Information Act and is usable in any subsequent litigation as an “admission” of the company so the involvement of legal counsel is an absolute.

The irony of the whole process is that during an investigation, an airline/operator is prohibited from talking about the accident, the investigation or the cause of the accident.  Despite this, the same airline is being asked to engage in extensive speculation and essentially conduct its own investigation for the purpose of “completely” answering all the questions in the NTSB Form 6120.1.

The best answer to give to any of the sections is that “The facts and circumstances of the accident/incident are under investigation.”

(Originally posted May 19, 2014)

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