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Sensitive Intersection

By By James T. McKenna | December 1, 2015



By James T. McKenna
jmckenna@accessintel.com

In marching toward the completion of this month’s issue, I was surprised to find myself at the intersection of some sensitive issues.

One of our final tasks before shipping the next R&WI off to the printer and publishing it on the website is to cull from the news items for our Rotorcraft Report section. We review items that we found worthy to post in the daily news section of www.rotorandwing.com, as well as the multitude of other industry developments from midmonth to midmonth.

In RCR, as we call it, we aim to provide a sampling of significant or intriguing developments in all rotorcraft sectors—civil, military and public use. We strive for a mix of news from market segments and from around the world. This section lets us capture late-breaking news in print.

In reviewing developments from the earlier four-week period, we work not just to recap news but also to add perspective and insight.

We generally have eight to 10 pages in which to do this, which makes the selection of items challenging. The challenge is magnified by the plethora of online news sources.

Some in the media business question the value of a printed news review, given the availability of specific news search results delivered to their inbox or mobile device daily, hourly or immediately. We believe in the value of a news review section. It invites you to reflect on developments, put them in perspective and weigh—in a more deliberate fashion—the significance they may have for you and your profession.

This month’s compilation for RCR was more challenging. We’ve combined our December and January issues, so our news review stretched back eight weeks to Oct. 20 (when we shipped November’s issue). It was along this stretch that I came upon that intersection.

On Dec. 1, the U.S. NTSB said that a collection of video and still images (from mobile phones and security cameras) had helped it define the accident sequence for a fatal Nov. 18 AS350 crash at a Carlsbad, California, airport. That was in a preliminary report on the crash, the cause of which the NTSB was far from determining.

I’ve read a fair number of NTSB reports over decades of writing about accident probes. Their authors tend to stick to facts, and the reports often sound clinical. This preliminary report bordered on dramatic.

It cited one witness who observed the AStar’s four failed landing attempts. The first three attempts left this fellow “concerned that the helicopter may crash,” the NTSB said, so he “positioned himself behind a car at the corner of a hangar.” He recorded the last, fatal attempt on his mobile phone’s camera and turned it over to the NTSB. The safety board investigator used that and other videos and pictures to describe the crash, noting the “helicopter pitched violently forward,” spun 180 deg and pitched up 45 deg, then struck the ground and broke up.

I had already decided to include a photo of wreckage from the Oct. 30 AW609 crash in RCR. Publishing crash photos is controversial. Many consider it distasteful and insensitive. But videos and photos of the crash site showed details pointing to an inflight breakup. We confirmed that investigators are looking into that. I believe an image of wreckage would illustrate that.

I very briefly considered obtaining a still image of the Carlsbad crash to run with an item on it. An image of distinctive debris is informative for readers who are safety investigators or interested in accident investigation. Printing one of a crash in the process of happening, for no reason than that we could, seemed prurient.

That brought to mind a British pilots union’s objection to a June 2015 court order turning over a crashed AS332’s flight recorder to criminal investigators looking into that fatal Aug. 23, 2013, Shetland Islands accident.

The union opted in late October not to challenge the order, in part because the accident investigation was moving toward a conclusion. But pilots have long complained about the lack of protection of flight recorders from being released to prosecutors and the media. Many believe cockpit voice and flight data recorders are protected, but the general absence of their public release is more a matter of accepted legal practice than established law. The Scottish court order illustrated that.

This was that intersection—of the value of all sorts of flight data to accident investigation, the concerns of flight crews and others about non-safety uses of that data and the calls for those outside aviation (such as lawyers and the media) to access it.

It is inevitable that cockpit-image and video-recorder use will grow. Imagery gives accident investigators invaluable evidence. In coming years, we must wrestle with the trade-offs among that evidence’s value, the privacy of flight crews and the public’s right to know.

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