NTSB: Rock and Roll Redux . . . The Civil Aeronautics Board Got It Right The First Time

On February 3, 1959, 56 years ago, three rock and roll legends, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P.  “The Big Bopper” Richardson, died in the crash of a Bonanza aircraft near Mason City Municipal Airport, Iowa.  The pilot also died.

Seven months later, the Civil Aeronautics Board, the agency which, at the time, had the responsibility for investigating aviation accidents, found that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error, with weather being a contributing cause.

Recently, the NTSB, which, in 1967, succeeded the CAB in the area of accident investigation, was petitioned to re-consider the probable cause, overrule the CAB, and find that the crash was not caused by pilot error [Link].

On April 21, 2015, after considering the request for reconsideration, the NTSB, citing the fact that no new evidence had been presented warranting reconsideration, declined to proceed.  And so, 56 years later, the death of these rock and roll legends remains the result of pilot error.

The takeaway from what happened here is that while the NTSB does have a process by which probable causes can be reconsidered – even 56 years after the accident – the road to reconsideration, separate and distinct from the amount of time which has elapsed since the original accident investigation, is an uphill battle.

The procedures to obtain reconsideration by the NTSB are found in 49 CFR § 845.41 [Link].  The rules concerning reconsideration or modification are, understandably, quite restrictive in their scope.  Specifically, they require a showing that the petition be based on new evidence or a showing that the Board’s original findings are erroneous.  Part and parcel of this requirement is a showing of why the evidence/information was not available prior to the Board adopting the probable cause, or, in the event error is claimed, the detailed grounds for the assertion of error.

Plane-ly Spoken has not done a detailed analysis of the percentage of requests for reconsideration which are denied versus those which are granted, but we suspect the former percentage heavily outweighs the latter.

In the area of criminal law, particularly related to scientific evidence, e.g. DNA, we have all read about convictions being overturned based upon proof that the convicted defendant was, in fact, innocent.  Applying this same approach to aviation accident investigations, it strikes us that one approach to seeking reconsideration of a probable cause which may not receive enough attention is the application of scientific techniques which weren’t available in years past.  Whether it’s analysis of avionics, voice tape analysis, developments in metallurgy or any of the many scientific disciplines now routinely used by the engineers and scientists, including those at the NTSB, we have a hard time believing that applying one or more of those techniques in an “old” investigation would not yield some surpising results.  Unfortunately, however, like DNA which may not have been preserved, aircraft wreckage, which has long ago been disposed of, prevents any sort of analysis, irrespective of how sophisticated or cutting edge new techniques may be.

And so, 56 years later, three rock and roll legends continue to be a victims of pilot error, despite, as put by The Big Bopper, being given “one more chance” [Link] by the NTSB.

(Originally posted August 14, 2015)

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