I was talking to someone a couple of days ago who asked why the US was involved in so damn many of these Air Crash Investigations things. The obvious answer is that it's a NatGeo series and most of their stuff is produced in the US -- I'm told the episodes with a British-accented narrator are re-dubs for airing in Europe, with or without subtitling. They don't profile a lot of cases that were investigated elsewhere because prior to the Soviet Union disintegrating, we had basically no documentation about what happened in Soviet airspace (to the point where even aircraft we recognized had NATO callsigns, because we didn't always know their proper model designations), and there are still big parts of the world where they don't tell us nutin' about nutin'. The principle reason we know anything about aviation incidents in Iran or China, in fact, is that they've bought a load of Tupolevs and Illushins, and the Russians responsible for supplying parts for those talk to us now.

The other answer is that the US is heavily involved in aviation, in all phases. There's a lot of international aviation law, somewhere between international maritime law and the Pirate Code in official status, that governs who does all the looking when a plane goes down. The formal governing code is administered by the ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which belongs to the United Nations, and at least in theory is adhered to by all the member states thereof. The ICAO processes for investigations allow for participation of a number of parties in air crash investigations, including:

  1. The state governing the airport where the flight took off;
  2. The state governing the airport where the flight was supposed to land; 
  3. The state governing the air traffic control center handling the flight at the time of the incident, if it was neither 1 nor 2;
  4. The state(s) governing the specific plot(s) of land where all the pieces of the airplane ended up, if it wasn't 1, 2, or 3;
  5. The state in which the aircraft was first manufactured;
  6. The state in which the aircraft was registered;
  7. The state in which the airline responsible for the aircraft's maintenance and the crew's training is based, if different from 6;
  8. Representatives from the manufacturers of specific parts of the plane that may become suspect in the course of the investigation, regardless of where in the world they are, if they're none of the above;
  9. Representatives from a state which had particularly important citizens on the flight in question;
...plus anyone else the people running the investigation opt to call when they don't know the answer, and the host asks them if they would like to Phone A Friend. 

In practice, the NTSB, the official investigative body in the US, fields a lot of requests. They qualify under #5 a significant amount of the time. Boeing, based in Washington State, has sold hulls to too many airlines in too many countries to enumerate here. Since they ate their major competitor McDonnell Douglas in 1997, they've also inherited responsibility for the upkeep on any of the latter's craft which are still certified airworthy. They're not much in demand as passenger liners anymore, but FedEx Air Cargo still has a fleet of DC-10s (upgraded with the later McDonnell Douglas glass cockpit modules, known colloquially now as "MD-10s") and MD-11s based in Atlanta that carry most of their airmail packages. In less affluent areas of the world, you still occasionally find someone running an air taxi service with a turboprop DC-8. A significant number of manufacturers building light general-aviation craft and small business jets, like Cessna and Learjet, are also US-based.

The NTSB isn't the only organization fielding these calls, either. Its French equivalent, the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses) gets a significant part of the load for much the same reasons. Airbus, formally Airbus Industrie, is based in France, as are a number of companies that produced smaller jets as a portion of their output, like Dassault. The UK also comes in from time to time; they have not produced the most popular airframes for a good fifty years or so, but Rolls Royce still does a brisk trade in jet engines.

[The Brits were at the forefront of civil aviation post-WWII and continued research and development for many years, most famously working with the French to develop the Concorde. Doing everything first unfortunately also means doing everything wrong first, and public faith in British engineering was shaken when a couple of de Havilland Comets suffered from explosive decompression -- exactly what it sounds like -- in quick succession. The Comet was the first passenger jetliner with a cabin pressurized to the equivalent of about 10,000 ft above sea level whilst the actual plane was flying at altitude, and de Havilland didn't anticipate the extra strain this would put on the squared-off corners of all the windows. Prior to that, when you only had to worry about crew, you either flew unpressurized and didn't go above about 10,000 feet, or you gave the pilot supplemental oxygen and stayed under 25,000 feet. The Comet had an intended cruise ceiling of 42,000 feet, what would be FL420 today if anyone ever hung around up there, which only Concorde really did.

IIRC, it was actually the transparent window protecting the radio antenna on the Comets that failed. If you ever wondered why the windows on airplanes have rounded corners, it's so the fuselage doesn't kerplode during cruise. If you ever wondered why the windows on trains have rounded corners, it's because many of the passenger cars age as slowly as airliners do, and were designed by people who were around in the '60s and '70s when jet planes were the epitome of coolness and speedy travel.]

The NTSB (and the BEA) are also often involved even when they don't qualify for any reason on the list, simply because they have a great deal of practice at this. We complain about the economy now, but we still have a lot of infrastructure and equipment lying around from back when we had cash and pre-approved credit cards coming out the ears, most of which is for hire if someone offers nicely to help with the per-diem. Some American companies and the US Navy -- although not the NTSB this time -- were involved in the investigation of Air France 447, simply because if you need to find something under ten thousand feet of water after its transponder batteries have run out, the three countries you would ask for deep-sea search and mapping equipment are the US, France, and Russia, and one of the three keeps most of its toys in the wrong ocean. Otherwise, nobody would have asked our opinion; it was a French plane flown by the French flag carrier, manufactured by a French company, leaving Rio de Janeiro for Paris, and scheduled to pass through Senegalese and Cape Verdean ATC on the way.

I'm also given to understand that the NTSB is unusually accessible for people who want to make documentaries about aviation incidents. It's accountable mainly to the public, and only secondarily to the air travel industry. Bureaucracy-wise it's unbeholden to the Federal Aviation Administration, who actually set down all the rules about what you can and cannot do in US airspace, and completely unconnected to the criminal justice system, except insofar as their official conclusions can be used as expert testimony in court. They are even less dependent on the manufacturers or the individual airlines and airport consortia. It's the closest practical thing to an independent investigations board -- they are officially, and largely unofficially, immune to interference from either the people they're investigating, or the people paying their salaries.

In practice, the FAA pays a lot of attention to their results, and much of the rest of the world pays attention to what the FAA says. The US is a huge part of the air travel industry for obvious reasons, and, although the FAA technically has no legal authority over other people's airplanes, they do dictate what kinds of certification you need to fly here. Sometimes an NTSB incident report results in what's called an "Airworthiness Directive", which is a piece of paper issued by the FAA that outlines in exactly what conditions one must keep one's aircraft if one wishes to continue operating out of a US airport. You can't legally force foreign nationals to comply with it, but you damn well can decree that anyone who lands here with a craft in violation of it will have said multi-million dollar aircraft effectively impounded wherever it is, because it until you fix it, it is not allowed to take off again.

The EU has also recently begun to notice that both it and its individual member states have the power to enforce the equivalent of an airworthiness directive by saying 'fix it or don't fly over us'. There were a few years where the European Union flatly refused to let anyone based in any part of Indonesia lob anything over their continent, on the grounds that they didn't think it was too fussy of them to insist that your planes should land in one piece at an aerodrome more often than not. Garuda Indonesia was the primary culprit there, out of a disastrous combination of poor maintenance and terrible crew training. Several accidents were caused by incredibly stupid human error, like the one where a 737 pilot tried to put the plane down going much too fast and without extending the flaps, blatantly ignoring both a series of cockpit alarms and a co-pilot that were telling him not to goddamn do that.

Poland was involved in that, mind you. When the people who own LOT think you don't know how to manage an airline, you are obviously doing something wrong. I suppose you can't really blame LOT for running what amounted to regularly-scheduled hijackings during the Cold War, though -- they flew service to East Berlin, and it was the custom at the time to grant political asylum to the hijackers, the crew, and really anyone else on the plane who felt like asking for it, provided they landed the thing politely on the capitalist side of the Wall. You get the feeling that after the first couple of times, the hijackers just barged into the cockpit and went, "So... West Berlin today?" and the LOT pilot just shrugged and requested clearance from ATC.

Comments

  1. Australia's investigators ae world class and get called in on a lot of crashes in the Southern & Western Pacific. Not a lot to do here, our safety regulations make the FAA look somewhat laid back. Which, unfortunately is why we don't do much interesting aviation engineering.

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    1. To be fair, you really don't want planes to crash in Australia. It's like the American West, only emptier, and even more likely to kill you. I think you guys have lost more small planes in the Outback than anyone else has lost anywhere, ever, short of the open ocean -- there is generally better mapping and accessibility along the remote bits of the Rocky Mountains here, and there's not much reason for passenger planes to be flying over other vast empty spaces like Siberia.

      You're also technologically-advanced English-speakers located conveniently close to places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, which have relatively busy airspace and not necessarily any great sense of urgency about things like traffic control and safety regulations. And you're looking right at Antarctica, which has only had the one serious passenger airliner crash, but both the flight plan and the flight crew did originate from your little brother, New Zealand.

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