The causes and prevention of air accidents has been central to the development of aviation. Working Week talks to Peter Claiden, a principal investigator (engineering) at the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch

How did you come into the role?

I completed a five-year apprenticeship with Hawker Siddeley Aviation (ex-de Havilland), which I have to say was the best start I could have hoped for in terms of learning the basics of this industry. I joined the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and later became a Member, latterly a Fellow, of the Royal Aeronautical Society, gained Chartered Engineer status and on 8 September 1980 I joined what was then known as the Accidents Investigation Branch.

What are the prerequisites for a career in this field?

The AAIB looks for a combination of attributes. There is an academic aspect, with a degree or equivalent in a related subject required, but equally a requirement for candidates to have as wide a range of experience as possible and also to be fairly practical. This is not a place for pure academics it requires a practical mind, an interest in problem-solving and a curiosity about all aspects of aviation.

How do you approach an accident site?

The key is to avoid the natural temptation to draw conclusions too quickly. You need to have the ability to soak up everything you see and hear and that means walking the site, absorbing all the details and gradually building a picture. You start with essential information, such as how the aircraft arrived at the site, whether the aircraft was intact when it impacted and whether the engines were operational. The role involves recording the evidence by documenting it carefully and then, over a period of time, which often includes a deal of follow-up work, starting to draw out some sense of what happened and why.

How has the role changed over the years?

When I started in 1980 there were no mobile phones, no GPS, no laptops and we used film cameras as opposed to digital cameras.The technology has improved dramatically, including the quality of information we now obtain from flight data recorders.

The basic principle of walking an accident site, taking in all the relevant information, speaking to witnesses and basing judgements only on the evidence has remained constant, but improvements in technology have mostly made the task easier. However, in some respects, with the wealth of data now available, the task is more challenging.

Have you been involved in any high-profile investigations?

I worked on the Lockerbie (Pan Am 103) investigation and gave evidence at the trial in Holland. I also worked as part of the investigation team on the crash of a Korean Air Boeing 747 cargo flight shortly after take-off from London Stansted in 1999.

How closely do you work with investigating bodies elsewhere in the world?

We have a strong working relationship, particularly with the National Transportation Safety Board in the USA and the TSB in Canada. I took part in two investigations led by those organisations: the TWA800 accident in 1996 and the Swissair MD-11 crash off Nova Scotia in 1998. Investigators from such organisations also participate, as appropriate, in our investigations.

About the AAIB

The AAIB can trace its roots to the Accidents Investigation Branch of the Royal Flying Corps, which was established in 1915

In 1946 the AIB was transferred to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, but continues to assist the RAF with accident investigations

The organisation formally became the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in November 1987, to differentiate it from its sister organisations handling marine and rail accidents. It became part of the Department for Transport in 2002

The AAIB's key remit is to improve aviation safety by determining the causes of accidents and making preventative recommendations


Source: Flight International