Law Enforcement's Response to Small Aircraft Accidents

By Lease, Matthew L.; Burke, Tod W. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement's Response to Small Aircraft Accidents

Lease, Matthew L., Burke, Tod W., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Headlines such as "Four Found in Plane Wreckage in Arkansas"' and "Small Plane Crashes in New Mexico" [2] often appear in newspapers nationwide and represent just a few of the thousands of small aircraft accidents that face law enforcement today. [3] In 1998, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) received 2,120 reports of commuter and private aircraft accidents within the United States, resulting in 641 fatalities. [4] Based on an analysis of these 1998 reports, one aircraft accident happened every 4 hours and one aircraft fatality occurred every 13.6 hours. [5]

Much of the public's attention is devoted to such major aircraft accidents as Valujet's Flight 592, which crashed into the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996, killing 110 passengers and crew. Two months after that crash, the country faced another catastrophe--TWA Flight 800, where 212 passengers and 17 crew members died. Fortunately, mass commercial aircraft disasters remain rare, due possibly in part to safety recommendations imposed by the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and to the experience and training of commercial aircraft pilots and maintenance staff, as well. Commuter Airlines--those whose aircrafts have 30 or fewer passenger seats--historically have higher accident rates than commercial airlines. [6] Because of this, law enforcement agencies more frequently respond to regional, commuter, or private aircraft accidents. Due to the rapid growth of air travel, law enforcement administrators should analyze local and national trends of aircraft accidents, establish response procedures, and develop training initiatives for their departments. These actions will enable law enforcement personnel to investigate aircraft accidents more efficiently and professionally.


Law enforcement agencies should remain aware of national aircraft accident trends because local trends often mimic them. By understanding aircraft accident trends, police departments can better determine response and training needs. Police administrators can focus on two distinct categories of data--regional and seasonal.


The NTSB compiles statistics on airplane crashes in each of America's 50 states and divides the country into five regions--northeastern, southeastern, midwestern, southwestern, and western. The western region accounted for a significant proportion of aircraft accidents, with Alaska and California making up 53 percent of aircraft accidents in this region in 1998. Also in that year, Texas accounted for 53 percent in the southwest region, Michigan lead the midwest region with 14 percent of total accidents, Florida lead the southeast region with 35 percent of the total accidents, and New York had 23 percent of the total accidents in the northeastern region. Experts attribute various reasons to each of these high rates, such as hazardous weather conditions, lack of roadways for emergency landings, increased air traffic, and the number of airports in a particular region.


Police departments also should focus on seasonal trends to prepare for such contingencies as weather and amount of daylight, which may impair a response to a small aircraft accident. For example, two men died in a small aircraft accident caused by a severe cold weather storm in San Benito County, California. The California Highway Patrol could not reach the crash site for a week due to high winds and icy weather conditions. [7]

The high accident rates of spring and summer seasons, March 20 through September 22, may reflect the increased air travel during this period. In 1998, 29.2 percent of aircraft accidents occurred in the spring of the year, 34.1 percent in the summer, 20.5 percent in the fall, and 16.2 during the winter season. [8]


A small aircraft accident can produce a large number of victims and a variety of problems. Therefore, police administrators should integrate response procedures into their departments' crash management programs that provide aid to victims, protect the crash site, and afford mental health services for people involved. …

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