It’s often said that airplanes are among the safest means of transportation. Still, even with continued improvements in its technology, it isn’t fool-proof. When an accident occurs, people want answers.
One of the people who helps find them is mechanical engineer Don Knutson.
An air safety investigator who worked for Beech Aircraft Company, Wichita, KS, and now is a consultant, he can be rushed on the scene at any time; and that scene has varied from mountain to swamp. “This job really fell in my lap,” he says. “I [as a mechanic] did fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. After working as a mechanic for a while, I decided to go back to college for my mechanical engineering degree. When I got my degree in 1990, the aviation industry was going through a real slowdown, but I ended up being picked up by Beech Aircraft. Then they had a mandatory layoff of 10% in all divisions and I was out as low man on the totem pole.” That’s when his boss stepped in and led him towards air safety investigation. “I never knew it existed at the company. I applied and got it.”
What Knutson quickly learned is that the job has many challenges. “Let’s say you come in as a field investigator for a manufacturer,” he says. “How you come in is that you normally get notified by local authorities that there has been an accident. The NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] would be in charge if it’s a U.S. investigation. The FAA usually tags along also. The local authorities, the state police, or local police will secure the site until the NTSB gets there and you follow the lead of the government agency. You provide technical support to an investigation; doing the tin kicking, looking through parts. You find it may have been a flutter, a tail section, a feeler problem. You do analysis with a structural dynamics engineer. That could be analyzing for an imbalance that possibly occurred. As you might notice, we’re doing everything, it’s A-Z. Every investigation brings up something new.”
The flight recorder or “black box” found on a typical airplane. Photo source: Commons.Wikimedia.org
And, Knutson says, the black box is not a factor as often as you might think. “This process is about considering the evidence and mixing and matching it with intuition and logic,” he says. “People don’t realize that in most accidents, you don’t have the benefit of a flight recording. If someone has a black box intact, with data and a cockpit voice recorder you can listen to, 75% of your investigation is solved.”
Another challenge is the weather conditions. “You could be traveling to a place in a remote area,” he says. “Your environment could be a mountain, in the middle of the desert. I’ve investigated in the middle of the frozen tundra. Things crash in the ocean and now it’s trying to find wreckage and salvaging, maybe figure out ways to get wreckage off the bottom of ocean with a diving team. That’s not easy.”
Still, often the challenge isn’t just human versus nature but human versus human. “You have to deal with egos, sometimes people that have done this 1000 times and this is how they’re always going to do it, even if there might be a better way,” he says. “Sometimes it’s companies reluctant to volunteer information for fear of opening a can of worms. The fact we’re dealing with a terrible catastrophe that just happened can also lead to a lot of stress. You need to try and stay calm and focus on the job you can do.”
As far as how to enter the field, Knutson advises gaining as much aviation experience as possible and searching yourself as to whether critical thinking is your strong suit.
“You want to probably get that private pilot’s license and take courses in air safety investigation,” he says. “But you’ll actually never stop learning in this job. An open mind is one of the best things you can have.”
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
The fact we’re dealing with a terrible catastrophe that just happened can also lead to a lot of stress. You need to try and stay calm and focus on the job you can do.
Don Knutson, Air Safety Investigator
More on this topic
After winning NASA’s Astronaut Glove Challenge in 2009, Nikolay Moiseev and Ted Southern teamed up in 2010 to launch a space suit design firm called ...
The latest trends in aerospace engineering are all about systems and as we continue our slide into the future, more coding will be needed for ...