Sifting through the wreckage of a downed airplane may not be the most appealing job for some, but for Robert Benzon ’71 it’s his way of serving his country and the industry he loves so much—flight. As an investigator-in-charge for the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) Benzon has spent the last twenty-five years investigating airplane crashes around the world. “It can be an emotional job at times, knowing that there are usually passenger and crew fatalities, but it’s very rewarding when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines themselves implement our safety recommendations. The number of fatalities in commercial aircraft accidents is on a good downward trend since I joined the NTSB many years ago. We’re trying to put ourselves out of business,” joked Benzon.
You could say that flying and a fascination with airplanes is in Benzon’s blood. His father was an Air Force navigator, stationed at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina when it was time for Benzon to attend college. “East Carolina was actually the only school I applied to and fortunately, I was accepted. It was far enough away from home, yet close enough that I could visit about once a month. I chose ECU because it was convenient, practical, affordable, and I knew it had a good history program. I enjoyed being part of the Air Force ROTC program at ECU and enjoyed intramural baseball and swimming.”
Upon graduation in 1971, Benzon became a commissioned Air Force officer and was immediately sent to flight school in Columbus, Mississippi, where he would spend the next year learning to fly military aircraft. He then flew Douglas C-47 Skytrains during the Vietnam War while stationed at Da Nang Air Base. During two further stateside assignments, one in California and another in New York State, Benzon flew the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, an aerial refueling tanker aircraft. While logging plenty of flight time Benzon also learned the ins and outs of airplane safety during his final two years of active duty as a flying safety officer. His military service earned him numerous Air Medals, Air Force Commendation Medals, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor designation, and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm. His Air Force experience also, of course, prepared him for a career with the NTSB.
The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in the other modes of transportation—railroad, highway, marine and pipeline—and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. The Safety Board determines the probable cause of:
•all U.S. civil aviation accidents and certain public-use aircraft accidents;
•selected highway accidents;
•railroad accidents involving passenger trains or any train accident that results in at least one fatality or major property damage;
•major marine accidents and any marine accident involving a public and a nonpublic vessel;
•pipeline accidents involving a fatality or substantial property damage;
•releases of hazardous materials in all forms of transportation; and
•selected transportation accidents that involve problems of a recurring nature.*
In 1984 Benzon joined the NTSB’s Chicago Field Office. During this “apprenticeship” he investigated sixty-four fatal general aviation accidents and several air carrier incidents. In 1987 Benzon transferred to NTSB Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he currently serves as investigator-in-charge, has investigated thirty-three major aircraft accidents within the United States, and has been the on-scene U.S. accredited representative on numerous major overseas accident investigations. “When you fly an airplane you always think you’re doing it the safest way, but when you become a safety-oriented person professionally, it turns out there are a lot of things that could be done better. It’s very satisfying work.
“As investigator-in-charge I’m a bit of a ‘generalist.’ We have what we call a ‘Go Team’ and I’m in charge of around twelve investigators on each assignment, depending on the crash. These investigators specialize in a variety of areas that I oversee, including operations [the history of the accident flight and crewmembers’ duties for as many days prior to the crash as appears relevant]; structures [documentation of the airframe wreckage and the accident scene, including calculation of impact angles to help determine the plane’s pre-impact course, altitude, and angle of impact.]; powerplants [examination of engines and engine accessories]; systems [study of components of the plane’s hydraulic, electrical, pneumatic and associated systems, together with instruments and elements of the flight control system]; air traffic control [reconstruction of the air traffic services given the plane, including acquisition of ATC radar data and transcripts of controller-pilot radio transmissions]; weather [gathering of all pertinent weather data from the National Weather Service, and other sources, for a broad area around the accident scene]; human performance [study of crew performance and all before-the-accident factors that might be involved in human error, including fatigue, medication, alcohol, drugs, medical histories, training, workload, equipment design and work environment]; and survival factors [documentation of impact forces and injuries, evacuation, community emergency planning and all crash-fire-rescue efforts]. *
“I’m basically the leader of the investigative team. On scene, someone has to run the meetings, deal with the many other organizations interested in the investigation outcome, and in general, guide the investigative process. Even though every plane crash is different, our basic process is pretty cut and dried. Our ‘Go Teams’ vary regarding individuals, but we are always ready to do the job. Whenever we get the call that there is a crash we all assemble in Washington within two hours of being notified. Usually we’re together quicker than that and we gather all of our gear to head out to the crash site [ironically] on a small business jet provide by the FAA.
“The first step in the investigation is to make sure the wreckage is secured and there aren’t any hazardous materials that could hurt someone. We introduce ourselves to the local authorities and typically do a quick press conference to give a brief outline of what we’ll be doing. Then we hold an organizational meeting to get everyone going in the right direction to start the investigation. Documentation of the wreckage, depending on the type of crash—a water crash, or if the plane has broken into several pieces—can take anywhere from two weeks to several months. It’s all a fact-gathering exercise; we purposely avoid analyzing anything too early. If we start analyzing without a good basis of fact, then we can analyze incorrectly and we certainly don’t want to do that.
“Once the crash has been properly documented we come back to Washington and assemble reports based on the factual material we gathered. About six months into the process we hold a public hearing where witnesses are interviewed. These witnesses would perhaps be FAA policy makers, people that trained the flight crew, and the people that designed the airplane, are put under oath and asked many, many questions to build up a case.
“Finally, we analyze all of the facts to determine what happened. Usually if you eliminate everything that went right, whatever is left is probably what caused the accident. The end product is a published report and public docket…that is filed for future use by attorneys, perhaps, or the aviation industry itself to try to prevent the next accident. That’s pretty much what we’re here for—to prevent the next accident,” said Benzon.
Benzon said that if he had to pick three or four investigations that meant the most to him, they would be:
Continental Airlines Flight 1713
November 15, 1987
Benzon’s first major airline investigation.
Pan American Airlines Flight 103
December 22, 1988
Benzon's first overseas assignment.
American Airlines Flight 587
New York City
November 12, 2001
The second worst airline accident in US history.
American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175
The aircraft lost in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Benzon led the team of NTSB investigators at the World Trade Center following the September 11 terrorist attacks. “Working on the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York was a traumatic experience. Two airliners were destroyed within minutes of each other. The FBI took the lead on the investigation because the events were not accidents, but true crimes. Our job was to identify airplane parts and to try to locate the flight data recorders. What we did was to station ourselves with binoculars and small telescopes in some of the buildings that surround Ground Zero and we then looked for any bright orange material that was uncovered as firefighters went through the wreckage looking for their own people. Unfortunately, we found absolutely no trace of the recorders.
“Most people don’t know that flight data recorders are actually bright orange, not black, as suggested by the term ‘black box.’ They are ¼ inch steel, fireproof boxes that have reflective tape around the outside and a locator beacon for underwater retrieval. The fires from the 9-11 crashes at the World Trade Center were too intense for those recorders to withstand. It was pretty emotional for me—I mean, you knew there were more than 2,500 people in there somewhere and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” said Benzon.
Currently, Benzon is working on a much different investigation—the “Miracle on the Hudson” River landing that occurred on January 15. “This investigation is a breath of fresh air for us, if you can believe it. The survivor’s stories are so uplifting and the captain did such a fine job putting the aircraft down in the water, that it is almost a joyous investigation. The good news is we think there might be ways to mitigate the bird problem in the future,” remarked Benzon, “every accident gives us more information on how to prevent similar events in the future.”
Ultimately, the NTSB and FAA want air travel to be worry and accident-free. “I don’t know the exact number, but statistics tell us that you can fly once a day for something like 11,000 years before you would die in a commercial airline accident. The odds are with us [in flight travel] and it’s much more dangerous driving to work, frankly, than flying in an airplane.” With people like Benzon identifying safer flight procedures, perhaps he really will work himself out of a job.*Supplemental information found at www.ntsb.gov