Working for AAIB

The recruitment process, eligibility and duties of inspectors at the Air Accidents Investigations Branch.

When we have vacancies, we advertise them in the aviation industry magazine Flight International and local/national newspapers depending upon the post.

An insight into life as an AAIB Operations Inspector

Emma Truswell, Inspector of Air Accidents (Operations)

As a new AAIB Operations Inspector, I quickly noticed the amount of variety in the job. Every week is filled with new learning experiences and interesting challenges. It provides a tremendous opportunity to develop a broad range of skills and knowledge, and to apply them to important real-life events. The most rewarding aspect for me is knowing that I am part of something meaningful and just. On one level we can be finding answers for bereaved families during the most difficult time in their lives, and on another we are helping to improve international flight safety.

A core part of the job is deploying to the scenes of accidents and serious incidents. A roster shows who is available for call-out any time of the day or night, and any day of the year. Once called, you could be sent anywhere in the world, so you need to have your kit ready. Time is of the essence to get to the site and start evidence collection.

Having been deployed a number of times already, it is clear that every occurrence is unique. You may be dealing with a light aircraft accident on remote terrain, or it could be a serious incident involving an airliner at a major airport. The site can be distressing, and the pace dramatic. With all kinds of people and agencies present, it is a case of prioritising and using people skills to manage the site, and be efficient in your work.

You can be away for a few days during the field phase, and then it’s back to the Branch to begin the post-field and analysis phase. This phase is full of twists and turns as you delve deeper in to the circumstances of an accident – trying to figure out the key factors and, crucially, what safety lessons can be learned by the wider industry. You may be dealing with anyone from eye-witnesses and flight crew, to operators and regulators – travelling all over to find answers and learn more. At the end of an investigation, the team produces a report to broadcast the safety message, with the aim of preventing re-occurrence. Sometimes it is also necessary to give evidence in court.

A positive aspect of the job is the continual scope for training and development. From remote terrain awareness and off-road driving training courses, to attending interesting conferences and manufacturer visits – this job represents an amazing opportunity to challenge yourself. Crucially for a pilot, you get the opportunity to continue flying in all its shapes and forms. For example, I fly regularly for an airline and have recently started my PPL(H). Also, the Ops Inspectors recently had the chance to do a Sikorsky S-92 simulator session, getting to practice landing on oil rigs at night and such like! The job really does offer the ideal balance for those passionate about aviation.

If you are a motivated and inquisitive person, who wants to improve flight safety as part of a well-established team, then grab this opportunity with both hands. Even after the short time I have been here I feel a real sense of fulfilment at the AAIB.

Operations inspectors must:

  • hold a current airline transport pilot’s licence with a valid class 1 medical certificate
  • have a broad based knowledge of aviation
  • have appropriate command experience on civil fixed wing aircraft or helicopters.

A week in the life of an AAIB Engineering Inspector

Bob Vickery, Senior Inspector of Air Accidents (Engineering)

I am often asked about what I do. When I tell people, the response I usually get is, “wow, that must be fascinating”.

Well, actually it is. I am an aircraft engineer and after a successful, broad and varied career in the Royal Navy I joined the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) four years ago. It was clear to me when I joined and still is today; if you love aircraft, engineering and are inquisitive by nature, enjoy learning and like puzzling things out, this job is ideal.

So what does it really involve?

Weeks are never the same and my time is taken up with the various stages of my investigations into air accidents and incidents large and small. At any one time I can have three or four on the go.

Accidents by their nature are unexpected and can and do happen any time, day or night. My involvement starts after the Branch has been informed that something has happened and I am assigned along with Flight Data and Operations colleagues to the case. This can be an investigation anywhere in the UK or to assist worldwide. I am usually at a high state of readiness to deploy as I move up the AAIB engineering duty rota which ensures at least one of 12 engineers is available 24/7, 365 days per year. Once assigned I deploy to wherever the aircraft might be. It can be anything from a micro-light, to a helicopter or even several hundred tonnes of airliner. The aircraft may be in small pieces in a field or parked at an airport stand with no sign outwardly of anything wrong.

This initial stage is fascinating and may take several days. In many cases I have to temper my enthusiasm given that this may well be a stressful or even life-changing experience for those involved. I need to remain calm and sympathetic to people who may be highly emotional, shocked and upset as I unravel what might be the worst day of their lives. Talking to relatives can be a challenging part of the role, but in some ways it can be rewarding, knowing that I am providing the answers they need to help them understand what happened, which may provide some comfort. I also have to be comfortable in myself, mindful that not all - but some - accident sites are dreadful to say the least. While psychological support is provided, the job is not for the faint-hearted.

Having gathered initial evidence with my colleagues, we formally present to the Chief Inspector and our peers our findings and thoughts as to where we think the investigation is leading.

As the engineering aspect of the investigation progresses, lines of inquiry emerge which require exploring in detail. This often means looking at drawings and manuals to understand the workings and design intent of the systems involved. This may then lead to reconstruction or, conversely, dismantling. I may then need to examine further and test components in our hangar or, if needed, with the manufacturer wherever they may be in the world; the job does involve a lot of travel. One day it might be a simple bolt or fastener, the next, a modern avionic system. I deal with both with an open but methodical and questioning mind with the same attention to detail. I constantly interact with knowledgeable experts at all levels and tact and diplomacy comes to the fore during my work and gets things done.

Rigorous and occasionally lively discussions are held with colleagues as the investigation progresses to identify the facts and causes and to formulate effective safety recommendations to prevent reoccurrence. Throughout the investigation I work towards producing a clear and accurate written report which conveys the circumstances and details of the engineering features of the accident so that it can be read and understood by people within aviation and by ordinary members of the public. I also have to be confident in my investigation when I give evidence publically to the Coroner (or Procurator Fiscal in Scotland).

In between investigations, and sometimes simultaneously for that matter, I have the opportunity to learn and train to improve my aviation knowledge and investigative skills. This might be a short course run by an aircraft manufacturer on their product or a university course looking at, for example, new materials. It can also be an in-house course to hone or refine a specific skill, for example microscope photography. Time is also made available for me to be part of aviation by simulator flying or flying in light aircraft to maintain a private pilot’s licence.

An AAIB engineering inspector is a fascinating and rewarding job. No two weeks are ever the same except for one thing, the knowledge that I and my colleagues are working to make commercial and private aviation safer by understanding what went wrong and what went right during accidents and incidents. Although the job can be difficult in some respects, given the sometimes distressing part my work, it is very rewarding and I thoroughly enjoy coming to work at the AAIB.

Engineering inspectors must:

  • hold an engineering degree and/or be a chartered engineer
  • have extensive professional aviation engineering experience
  • have knowledge and experience of modern aircraft systems

Possession of a pilot’s licence or some experience as a pilot is desirable.

The work of an AAIB Recorded Data Inspector

Adrian Burrows, Senior Inspector of Air Accidents (Flight Recorders)

Since becoming a recorded data inspector in 2003, my role has been a varied one requiring a very broad skill set, built up over time. This enables me and my colleagues to recover and analyse recorded data from almost any source, damaged or not, that might be of use to an investigation.

Such data sources could be the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, often referred to as the black boxes, that are normally fitted to large commercial transport aircraft, or a tablet device or smart phone that a private pilot might be using for navigation, and everything in between such as avionics, engine control units, GNSS receivers and video cameras. We are not restricted to aircraft-recorded data either, so ground sources such as surveillance and en-route radar, CCTV, still and video cameras all have the potential to shed some light into what may have happened to cause an accident or serious incident, either directly or by providing evidence supporting that found by the operations and engineering inspectors.

The biggest challenge is often the level of damage a device may have sustained. Sometimes, the level of mechanical or fire damage means that the data is either lost or unrecoverable. Other times I am amazed the data has survived. Most frustrating are the times when a device, usually an SD card, looks undamaged, and no matter what you do to it, it fails to reveal its secrets. That’s the point where outside help may be required as emerging technologies or well-practised experts in industry may have something new to offer that we can’t yet do, or time is set aside for me or a colleague to develop a new capability to help.

So, a typical day might see me removing a memory chip from a broken piece of avionics so that the chip’s memory can be read, or swapping the logic board of a damaged iPad into an undamaged one so that you can I which apps were running at the time of the accident, and what data was being recorded. Other times I might be downloading a modern flight data recorder and be presented with thousands of parameters (such as airspeed, altitude etc.) that need to be prioritised and analysed. A cockpit voice recorder download might need transcribing or the background noises analysed to determine if the mechanical noise signature of a failing component in a helicopter’s drive train is evident. All of this evidence needs to be described in a coherent, logical manner in our investigation reports, with graphs, charts and data overlaid on maps also used to illustrate the points I want to make.

A non-typical day for me might see me heading out to sea with our newly acquired flight recorder underwater locator beacon detection equipment looking for an aircraft lost at sea, or deploying to an accident site in a remote and challenging location. Then again, I might be travelling abroad to an accident site to assist with other countries’ investigations or to liaise with other experts in this field. Back home there could be an inquest at which I will present my evidence or a training course, identified as part of my personal development, to attend. If not too busy, the AAIB encourages me to go flying and maintain my PPL currency and improve my flying skills.

Another import aspect of my role is international liaison where I can help shape and influence European (and sometimes international) recording standards for the future. It also means that I get to participate in conferences where good working practices and experiences are shared, or industry trends and new technologies are explored, that could influence how the AAIB’s capabilities can be enhanced to meet future demands.

I am part of a small group of recorded data inspectors who take in turn to be on-call ready for the next deployment. As our interest is in all possible sources of recorded data, not just black boxes, when called upon to deploy, I will go to most accidents, usually joining my colleagues from operations and engineering at the accident site. Working together as a team from such an early stage in an investigation helps me focus on the data that is relevant to the investigation, and help try and build an early picture of what happened. Sometimes I’ll make a Safety Recommendation, one of the AAIB’s main mechanisms for improving aviation safety, that aims to improve the quality of recorded data or to introduce new sources for future investigations.

The above is a snapshot of some of things to expect as a recorded data inspector and illustrates the varied skill set that is required. So, if your background is aeronautics then you’ll quickly be delving into the world of electronics, and vice versa, if your background is electronics or avionics, expect to be considering the finer points of aircraft handling and performance as you try to unpick the clues in the wealth of recorded information available.

Flight recorder inspectors must:

  • hold a degree in electronics/electrical engineering or an aeronautical engineering related subject and/or be a chartered member of a relevant engineering institute
  • have extensive knowledge and experience of modern avionics
  • have a knowledge of aircraft performance

Broad-based professional aviation engineering experience is an advantage.

Duties of inspectors

The duties of all inspectors include:

  • conducting effective and efficient investigations to determine the causes of accidents and incidents
  • contributing to the timely publication of reports
  • producing draft safety recommendations that are well researched and effective in reducing risk within the industry
  • preparing and presenting statements and evidence at legal hearings including coroners’ inquests, fatal accident inquiries
  • sharing knowledge and enhancing international standards of accident and incident investigation