Feature Article 5

Preparing the Next Generation of Air Safety Investigators

By Anthony T. Brickhouse, MAS

Author Biography

Anthony T. Brickhouse, MAS
Assistant Professor / Air Safety Investigator
Department of Applied Aviation Sciences
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, Florida

Anthony T. Brickhouse is an assistant professor assigned to the Department of Applied
Aviation Sciences in the College of Aviation at the Daytona Beach campus of Embry-
Riddle Aeronautical University. Before joining the faculty of ERAU, he served as the Assistant Aviation Safety Program Manager for the Daytona Beach campus. Before joining the aviation safety staff at ERAU, he was assigned to the Vehicle Performance Division of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, District of Columbia. During the span of his career, he has investigated numerous aircraft accidents and safety events. Since entering academia, Professor Brickhouse has been involved in research surrounding flight operational quality assurance (FOQA), airport ground safety, and the use of flight recorders in accident investigation. Professor Brickhouse holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering with minors in mathematics/aviation safety and a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Science with a specialization in Aviation/Aerospace Safety Systems. He is currently enrolled at the Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University pursuing the Doctor of Education degree with a focus on higher education leadership in aviation. Professor Brickhouse is active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and is a full member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI), serving on their General Aviation Safety Working Group.


Since the first fatal aircraft accident in the United States on September 17, 1908, the need has existed to investigate these events. Compared to other modes of transportation, aviation is in fact very safe, but accidents will happen and there must be trained individuals available to respond, determine the causes, and bring forth preventative measures. A general overview of air safety investigation will be presented, along with a discussion of the three basic questions investigators must address. Specific methods used in the training of future investigators will also be presented.


Since the first fatal aircraft accident in the United States on September 17, 1908, the need has existed to investigate these events. Compared to other modes of transportation, aviation is very safe, but accidents will happen and there must be trained individuals available to respond, determine the causes, and bring forth preventative measures.

An important component of improving aviation safety is selecting and preparing the right people as future air safety investigators (1).The Department of Applied Aviation Sciences at the Daytona Beach Campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers a BS degree in Safety Science and a minor course of study in Aviation Safety. Both of these areas of study allow students to be exposed to the science of investigating aircraft accidents.

Historical Background

On December 17, 1903, history was made in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina when Orville Wright piloted the Wright Flyer, staying aloft for 12 seconds and covering a distance of 120 feet. Unfortunately, only five years after this historic flight, tragedy struck and the aviation industry suffered its first fatality (2).

On September 17, 1908, Orville Wright was demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Ft. Meyer, Virginia. Twenty-six year old Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge volunteered to be the passenger. After takeoff, two big thumps were felt from the engine and the plane started to shake. Something flew off of the plane and the aircraft veered to the right and crashed into the ground, pinning both Orville Wright and Lieutenant Selfridge. The two flyers were taken by stretcher to the nearby post hospital, where Lieutenant Selfridge died from a fractured skull and Orville Wright was treated for a broken leg, several broken ribs, and numerous cuts and bruises (3).
The Army and the Wrights conducted the first ever aircraft accident investigation and determined that the propeller failed, causing the accident sequence. The Wright Flyer was redesigned and soon returned to flight (3).

The Three Questions

After the occurrence of any accident, three very important questions surrounding that accident must be addressed.

  1. What Happened?
  2. Why Did It Happen?
  3. What Can Be Done To Prevent The Same Events From Occurring Again?

These three questions serve as the foundation for the accident investigation process. Each step in the investigative process includes considerations for gathering answers.  At the end of the investigation, the causes are normally determined and recommendations are made. This is possibly the most important phase, since preventative measures are introduced to hopefully reduce the chances of that same type of accident occurring again (4).

ERAU’s Four-Fold Approach   

Embry-Riddle uses a four-fold approach in preparing the next generation of air safety investigators. This approach includes course work, case studies, hands-on exercises, and developmental activities. These specific areas give the next generation exposure to all facets of the accident investigation process.

Course work is the foundation of any academic program. ERAU students studying this discipline take courses ranging from a basic introductory aviation safety course to an advanced accident investigation course that examines crash dynamics, crashworthiness, and survivability issues. These courses are taught by qualified individuals, with pertinent experience in these subject matters. Students take aviation safety courses in conjunction with courses from disciplines in an effort to create academically well-rounded individuals.
Students are exposed to case studies in most courses. Understanding aviation history and past accidents is a crucial step in preparing the next generation of air safety investigators. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be obtained from looking at the past history of accidents and the changes that resulted. History unfortunately does repeat itself and having a thorough knowledge of the past can only help the safety efforts of today and tomorrow.

The third step in the approach is possibly the most important. Classroom lectures are wonderful ways to introduce certain concepts, but the science of air safety investigation can only be learned by doing. Each semester, students are divided up into investigative teams and allowed to conduct the investigation of a mock accident scenario using the Mobile Accident Investigation Laboratory. These are full scale investigations that allow the students to experience bio-hazard considerations, field data collection and documentation, witness interviewing, photography, dealing with the media, and other activities investigators must deal with at an active crash site. After the on-scene portion of the exercise is completed, students must begin processing of analyzing the data collected in the field. This can be an extensive process and normally takes weeks to complete. At the end of the process, the student teams publish a full report addressing the accident investigated and present their findings in a simulated public hearing.

The final step in the process involves students being given the opportunity to join and interact with professional organizations such as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI). ERAU is very fortunate to have student chapters of both organizations on campus. Both organizations keep a busy schedule of activities that give students the opportunity to broaden their horizons. Numerous guest speakers are invited in each semester to share their experiences in industry. Two very important facets of preparing the next generation of air safety investigators are represented by mentoring and networking. ASSE and ISASI offer students wonderful opportunities to build relationships with industry professionals.


Air transportation is a safe mode of travel. However, accidents do occur and causes must be determined to prevent future occurrences. ERAU is taking a proactive four-fold approach to prepare the next generation of air safety investigators. Hopefully, through course work, case studies, exercises, and professional interaction, ERAU students will be poised to make a major contribution to the field of aviation safety.


1.  McGuire, K. (2006). Selecting the Next Generation of Investigators. ISASI Forum, 39(1), 9 –  11.

2.  Centennial Flight Commission. Retrieved May 22, 2006 from, http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Wright_Bros/First_Powered_Flight/WR6.htm

3.  Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved May 22, 2006 from, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/thomaset.htm

4.  Wood, R., & Sweginnis, R. (2006). Aircraft Accident Investigation (2nd ed.). Casper, Wyoming: Endeavor.