Crash: National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration

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Commercial and private air travel in the United States is regulated and investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, known as the NTSB, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, identified as the FAA. Both these agencies monitor and improve safety within the aviation industry. The Federal Aviation Administration establishes safety standards for pilot conduct, flight operations, as well as aircraft manufacturers.  The FAA also is responsible for the enforcement of these regulations with civil or criminal penalties.  This organization is an individual operating unit of the Department of Transportation, known as the DOT, which was established in 1996 by Present Lyndon B. Johnson.  There are eleven separate operating units of the DOT. The National Transportation Safety Board has the responsibility for investigating all civil aircraft accidents, as well as the ability to recommend safety standards for compliance and prevention. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has defined its mission as providing “the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world” (“FAA,” 2013). Their main roles are to ensure passenger safety and efficiency of air travel, this means promoting the airline industry along with safe travel for United States passengers. This includes “regulating civil aviation, encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology, developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft, researching and developing the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics, developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation, and regulating U.S. commercial space transportation” (“FAA,” 2013). Airline industry regulation initially began in the 1920s with the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which installed the United States Commerce Department in charge of commercial travel (“All GOV,” 2013). This ultimately led to the development of the Aeronautics Branch, which became the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC), which developed the first three air traffic control centers (“All GOV,” 2013).

The National Transportation Safety Board is the investigation agency. They define their role as “independently advancing transportation safety, maintaining our congressionally independence and objectively, conducting objective, precise accident investigations and safety studies, performing fair and objective airman and mariner certification appeals, advocating and promoting safety recommendations, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families” ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). This organization began in 1926 as well, initially consolidated in 1967 into the Department of Transportation, later became a completely separate entity under Congress in 1974 when Congress proclaimed “ …No federal agency can properly perform such investigatory functions unless it is totally separate and independent from any in the United States” ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). The NSTB investigates all mass transportation accidents to determine the “probable cause” of the accident, which includes approximately 2,000 aviation accidents and incidents annually ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013).

After investigating they make recommendations to improve transportation safety. Since 1996, the NTSB also has “the additional responsibilities of coordinating Federal assistance to families of aviation accident victims” ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). The National Safety Transportation Board established a division at George Washington University in Virginia to promote employee technical skills and to make this knowledge available to the transportation community, known as the NTSB Academy ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013).This organization has issued over 13,000 safety recommendations, as well as investigated more than one hundred thirty-two thousand accidents, along with being available every day of the year, twenty-four hours a day ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). The NTSB has five board members nominated by the President of the United States, with multiple offices reporting to them. This staff conducts investigations for all civil aviation accidents, as well as major accidents for other modes of transportation, without regulatory or enforcement powers ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). Steps taken to investigate these accidents are discussed below as well as common causes of airliner crashes.

According to several law firms, common causes of accidents include pilots, airline operators, mechanics, safety crews, airline supervisors, aircraft owners, aircraft manufacturers and equipment manufacturers faulty or structural design issues, component contractors, airport owners, airport maintenance contractors, negligent in third party carrier selection, as well as FAA problems with air traffic controller, weather systems, and regulation violations. Aviation accident law covers major air carrier and general aviation accidents, as well as including all non-commercial aircraft including business jets, charter flights, small planes, helicopters, and hang gliders (“Aviation Accidents - Overview.,” 2013). The accident categories described above cover general aviation and major carrier accidents.

The NTSB begins each accident investigation at the scene of the accident immediately. They operate with a “Go Team” ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013) approach. Traveling in the most fastest mode, they respond to air, rail, highway, pipeline, as well as marine accidents with a team of three to 12 members with “ wrenches, screwdrivers, and devices peculiar to theirs specialty”, along with “flashlights, tape recorders, cameras, and lots of extra tape and film” ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). There is an Investigator-in-Charge (IIC) for all aviation accidents who reviews operation matters, which is defined as the history of the accident flight and crewmember duties, along with what they were doing days prior to the crash ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). This team also evaluates the following: (1) structures, which is defined as the “documentation of the airframe wreckage and the accident scene, including calculation of impact angles,” which is used to establish the pre-impact course and altitude of the plane; (2) Powerplants, are also reviewed, which are defined as the examination of the engines, propellers, as well as engine accessories; (3) systems, which studies the components of the hydraulic, electrical, pneumatic, instruments, and flight control system elements; (4) air traffic control, which reviews the reconstruction of the information provided by the air traffic control and associated systems, along with the transcripts of the radio transmissions between the pilot and the controller; (5) weather, any and all data available from the National Weather Service, as well as local radio station data; (6) human performance, which is described as crew performance, along with fatigue, medication, drugs, alcohol, or training and work environment issues which might be an impact; and (7) survival factors, which documents impact forces, injuries, evacuation, city or neighborhood emergency planning, as well as any crash-fire rescue efforts ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013).

Other groups, including the FAA are part of this team which evaluates each of the areas above. Additional information is gathered from the aircraft manufacturer, the airline company maintenance records, as well as recaps from pilots and other personnel with knowledge related to the scene. Eyewitness accounts are also collected, as well as the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder information. This information is reviewed in its entirety by all team members and associated organizations. The media is informed during various intervals with factual information as it is finalized.  The NTSB never speculates the cause of an accident without a complete and thorough investigation ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). Findings of facts are submitted to the NTSB, along with conclusions and/or safety recommendation by all parties. The NTSB always reviews and refines safety regulations, as well as creates new regulations based upon the outcome of any accident investigation. Investigations include depositions of all parties, testing of all aviation personal involved in air travel related to the accident, as well as autopsies of all deceased individuals. Public hearings are also held to formally document the accident event and disclose the findings with IIC conducting the meeting. A draft report, probable cause, as well as recommendations are presented to conclude the investigation. The NTSB can adopt the report as presented or make changed discussed during the meeting. NTSB board members vote on the findings, recommendation, and the probable cause (s) of the accidents ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013).

If criminal activity is determined as the cause, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI becomes the lead federal investigative body, with the NTSB taking a support role ("National Transportation Safety Board," 2013). This is demonstrated with the attack of September 11, 2001, described by the New York Times newspaper as “the worst and most audacious terror attack in American history” (Schmemann, 2010). Most recent safety statistics, as reported by the New York Times, indicate we have improved as a country. According to a recent article, “last year was the safest since 1945, with 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an accident researcher. That was less than half the 1,147 deaths, in 42 crashes, in 2000” (Mouawad & Drew, 2013). There are many reasons for this improved safety success, including a more proactive role by the National Transportation Safety Board, as evidenced in January, 2013, by “the grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet”, “the last time a fleet was grounded was 1979, after a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 crashed shortly after takeoff at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, killing 273 people. The last fatal accident involving a commercial flight in the United States was Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, killing 50 people, on Feb. 12, 2009. The pilot’s maneuver was the opposite of what he should have done when ice formed on the wings” (Mouawad & Drew, 2013). With air traffic still growing in the United States, the FAA, major airlines, as well as pilots have embraced safety with more programs, one of which is the Aviation Safety Reporting Systems, known as ASRS, which collects voluntary aviation safety incident and situation information from airline employees, controllers, and other aviation personnel ("Aviation Safety Reporting System," 2013). This will hopefully allow for a better assessment of information to ensure aviation safety.

Started in 2007, this system allows potential risks to be identified and documented, without punitive measures to prevent incidents from occurring. The Federal Aviation Administration also reviews data from flight recorders on a regular basis to identify common problems. This has led to the requirement of more hours of co-pilot training, as well as the development of a lessons learned library, with technical and common theme related lessons documented (“FAA,” 2013). According to the FAA documented lessons learned, “accident summaries are organized across groups of accidents resulting in the following accident common theme categories: (1) Flawed Assumptions, assumptions are essential elements of safety determination for every aspect of the design, operation, and maintenance of the airplane; (2) Human Error, the most common of all themes and exists in one form or another on nearly all accidents; (3) Organizational Lapses, where an institutionalized process, procedure or requirement that allows vital tasks or information to be handled in such a way so as to prevent an accident precursor from being recognized or safety intervention from being initiated; (4) Pre-existing failures, a condition on a single airplane or possibly a fleet of airplanes that exist, either as a latent condition or an active fault; (5) Unintended effects, a situation where an initiative, change, new process or activity intended to improve something actually produces, in addition to the improvement, an undesirable outcome” (“FAA,” 2013). 

Reasoning suggests that these proactive approaches will continue, and in turn make for a more cohesive methodology with regard to aviation safety. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation System Board have an increasing awareness of preventing further issues as much as possible for Americans. By assessing each incident with the utmost analysis and examination, the FAA and NTSB can improve on the elements of aircraft and policies pertaining to loss of life. This will hopefully result in safer air travel, a greater respect for aviation industry employees, and an increased level of flights both domestically, as well as internationally.


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