Major Transportation Accident Investigator

Malcolm Brenner
National Transportation Safety Board

As I write this, I am covering “go-team” for the Human Performance Division of the Office of Aviation Safety. This means that if there is a major aviation accident in the United States, or one involving a U.S. built aviation product worldwide, I may be required to travel on short notice with a team of investigators to the accident site to begin the process of determining what caused the accident and developing recommendations on ways to prevent it from happening again. In the past, the “go-team” assignment has led me to the Florida everglades and the Malaysian highlands, to corporate airline and manufacturer facilities, and to the homes of pilots and witnesses. I am responsible for investigating human factors issues, using diplomatic ability, investigative initiative and thoughtful scientific understanding to identify underlying safety issues that may affect all pilots, all air traffic controllers, all mechanics or all airplane designers and not just those directly involved in the specific accident. It is a rewarding job that requires scientific thinking to solve a problem of tremendous public concern.

Like many who have written for this column, I did not plan to enter this career (or even know that it existed). I enjoyed psychology classes in college at Boston University and combined a psychology major with courses in mathematics and science. I received a National Science Foundation fellowship to attend graduate school and chose to study experimental approaches to social psychology. However, as a graduate student at Stanford University and the University of Michigan, I found that the field seemed less developed scientifically than I had envisioned. Further, it bothered me that I had difficulty explaining the practical value of my work to my family. While I liked many aspects of graduate school, and continued to work toward becoming a professor, I was experiencing misgivings that were unknowingly preparing me for unexpected career directions.

These career changes were a natural progression of “following my heart” rather than a result of deliberate planning. One of my graduate research projects concerned stage fright, and I learned from a popular magazine that a commercial product was being marketed that might support this work. The Psychological Stress Evaluator (PSE), a new device sold for lie detection, alleged to measure stress based on speech analysis (and did not require attaching any monitors to the subject). Intrigued, I contacted the company, obtained a PSE for testing and, along with several colleagues, examined the PSE response within stage fright, lie detection and psychophysiological experiments. We concluded that although there might be validity to using speech changes as evidence of psychological stress, the PSE had practical shortcomings that prevented it from being used reliably as a lie detector.

When we published this work, there were several significant reactions. First, NASA funded a project to examine the speech technology farther to see whether it might prove a useful measure of pilot workload. Second, we were contacted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked to testify at a Congressional hearing on lie detection. I flew to Washington, D.C. and, with visions of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” testified that there were practical issues that I believed prevented valid PSE use as a lie detector. I prepared this testimony largely from an ethical concern that scientists need to address societal issues resulting from their work. I half seriously thought there might be a thug waiting at my house when I returned from Washington. In fact, there was no thug and the experience proved priceless.

Next, I was contacted by a law firm representing an airline involved in a major accident and was asked whether I would be “amenable” to serving as a consultant. I put on my best suit, visited the law firm and returned with a recording of the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversation. I reviewed this tape hundreds of times, studying the pilots’ statements and reactions as the accident situation developed, and found it was the most interesting research project I had ever experienced. Even though I had no background in aviation, I found that the law firm appreciated my insights into pilot actions based on general scientific training and a sense of how people might realistically behave. The law firm had concrete practical issues to address, and it was helpful for them to have someone trained in academic psychology to advise how different ideas might be supported or damaged by the available technical literature. The consulting work also paid well, and I earned a private pilot license to support my new vocation.

Finally, after several years of part-time research and consulting support, I applied for several full-time jobs and was pleased to be offered a position with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is a government agency with about 400 employees, making it one of the smallest federal agencies and giving it a sense of family that is unusual for the government. It employs about 18 specialists with training in psychology/human performance engineering, most at a PhD level, and all with experience in the transportation industry. Most work as investigators assigned to the aviation, railroad/pipeline, highway or marine offices and they travel with the investigative teams to document and evaluate the human performance issues raised by an accident. Others work in the Safety Studies Division in the Office of Research and Engineering examining accident trend data and conducting multi-modal studies to identify deficiencies and recommended actions to improve safety. The work conducted by these human factors specialists is more strategic in nature and closer to applied academic research programs than is the job of investigator whose job is more reactive.

For me, the most satisfying aspect of my job as a human performance investigator is being able to apply my background and training in science to address important issues. It is like solving a mystery where the outcome is seriously appreciated. In many cases, the needs of the investigation require me to conduct background research and work with experts on issues such as witness credibility, perception, decision-making, crew coordination, corporate culture, fatigue and medical impairment to summarize current technical knowledge that is relevant to an accident. I also enjoy the travel and immediate “real world” aspects of the job. Overall, it is a satisfying job that touches on many aspects that I enjoy and appreciate.

As a specific example of how academic training can apply to this job, I have been fortunate in being able to use my own background in speech analysis to coordinate investigative efforts that supported major Safety Board actions. In the Exxon Valdez investigation, speech analysis provided secondary evidence that the master was impaired by alcohol at the time of the accident. This work was based on a comparison of recorded radio communications from the time of the accident with those from earlier and later time periods, working with academic experts on the effects of alcohol on speech, and the work contributed to Safety Board recommendations on the treatment of alcohol issues within the marine industry. In the investigation of Boeing 737 airplane crashes at Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh, speech analysis provided useful evidence on pilot performance during the accident situation that helped the Safety Board determine whether an aircraft malfunction or inappropriate pilot response was central to the accident sequence. This was particularly true for the analysis of brief grunting sounds captured by the cockpit voice recorder from the flying pilot in the Pittsburgh accident that, when overlaid on engineering data, supported a model of a proposed aircraft malfunction. The Safety Board recommendations resulted in safety modifications affecting the world fleet of Boeing 737 airplanes.

For graduate students considering careers outside a traditional academic one, I would offer encouragement to “follow your heart” and explore areas you enjoy even when a career direction is not apparent. Without realizing it, you are gaining critical scientific skills in graduate school that are essential to applications outside the university. These include your ability to think in terms of statistical or experimental standards of evidence, your ability to discount models of human behavior that are inherently unrealistic, and your ability to appreciate underlying trends that may affect many people and not just the one in focus. These skills, more than knowledge of a particular academic area, can be widely applied and appreciated in careers that may now appear invisible and that can be very satisfying.

(Originally published in the February 2005 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)