The AAIB (Air Accidents Investigation Branch) is a unit of the UK Department of Transport that investigates civil aircraft accidents and serious incidents within the UK, its overseas territories and crown dependencies. Its purpose is to improve aviation safety by determining the circumstances and causes of air accidents and serious incidents, and promoting action to prevent reoccurrence. It has around 60 staff and is based next to Farnborough Airport, about 30 miles south east of London.
They invite visitors to view their operation, learn more about how they work and what they do. These are limited and its quite a privilege to be able to join. I was fortunate to tag along with a group of trainee Flight Instructor students for the day. There were about 30 visitors in all, including some from ATC units around the country and a few from abroad.
I was warned that some SatNavs can mislead you and that traffic congestion is severe in the area. Making an early start, I found that Googlemaps does direct you correctly, turning off the main road and across an old bridge that’s seen better days and a small perimeter road through a wooded area just outside the airport. The compound is securely fenced off, but there is plenty of parking inside. The site is located in a pleasant woodland area just on the south side of the airport and shared with the RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch).
We were led to a lecture theatre and given a couple of standard presentations. These were very well prepared and delivered, explaining the scope, purpose and methods used during their investigations. Their purpose is to prevent future accidents, and their detailed reports often include recommendations. They are careful not to attribute blame, and be sympathetic to survivors and relatives of air accident victims.
There was plenty of opportunity to ask questions, and I asked about future technologies. Is the AAIB prepared to investigate drones, space rockets and new types of propulsion (e.g. sustainable fuels, electric, hydrogen etc.). Staff are already familiar with smaller drones because they use them to record the area around accidents – many are already trained drone pilots. They have also been developing their organisational expertise to cope with space rockets, now that the UK has approved rocket launches from 2024 from Unst in Shetland.
There are six teams of investigators with a mix of expertise working on each accident. The flow of incoming work is unpredictable and action must be taken immediately for the more serious events. Staff are on-call for immediate deployment (The “Go” Team), with a bag packed at all times. This seems to work well under normal circumstances, but resources were strained during an unfortunate sequence of accidents with four or five happening within the same week. The logistics team were particularly busy arranging everything across multiple sites.
Dec 2023 only had correspondence reports
Overall, the impression is that of a well run, professional organisation staffed by competent experts. I think this shows through in the extensive detail and analysis in their reports. There is a monthly summary of concluded investigation reports, with occasional interim reports for particularly newsworthy or important accidents. Field reports can take a year or more to complete. Most of the smaller accidents are quickly and simply documented from pilot reports, without any investigator visiting or even speaking to those involved. It appears to be those involving fatal injuries that get the greatest attention. The one accident I was involved in when a helicopter hover taxied directly behind me at the hold was entirely dealt with by email correspondence after my initial phone calls.
After the lectures and Q&A, we visited a hangar which is laid out into sections with one for each incident. I can’t say anything about any individual section, but these related to active investigations including a few where legal proceedings remain open – some for quite a few years. The wreckage had been meticulously gathered and pieced together, then tested to see what might have still be working (e.g. mechanical control rods, electrical instruments etc.) before impact.
The tour of the hangar took about an hour and involved at least 20 different cases.
We returned to the lecture room for a final debrief before departing. This could leave a morbid impression and even a view that aviation is inherently unsafe. Instead it reinforced my opinion that these unfortunate accidents are very much the exception, and becoming more so through the work of the AAIB which identifies their causes and leads to improvements that reduce risks. At times I feel that several aspects of UK aviation desperately need improvement, but I left with a very positive view that this is one area the UK really does quite well.
Other aviators have strongly recommended a visit, and I was lucky to chance on the opportunity. It was also good to meet up with a number of recently qualified commercial pilots, about to embark on their career initially as flight instructors. Thanks to those involved in arranging my visit.