Monday, December 28, 2015

National Transportation Safety Board hiring to replace 2 Alaska crash investigators

Two of Alaska’s four dedicated National Transportation Safety Board investigators are leaving the state, and the federal agency’s Anchorage office is moving quickly to fill their vacancies.

Clint Johnson, the NTSB’s Alaska chief, confirmed Monday that his office had openings to replace air safety investigator Chris Shaver and aviation accident investigator Millicent Hoidal. Both will remain with the board, but Shaver has moved to Denver to care for a sick family member; Hoidal is getting married and moving to Georgia next year.

Johnson said that he hopes to select new candidates to replace Shaver and Hoidal by late January. Application pages for both the aviation accident investigator position and the air safety investigator position have been posted on a federal jobs website, where they are listed as open until Jan. 11 and Jan. 13 respectively.

“We don’t have openings all that often, so people take advantage of it when we do have openings,” Johnson said. “Usually we get 100 to 120 applications (per position); we have to sort through those.”

In the meantime, two dedicated investigators in addition to Johnson -- lead investigator Brice Banning and Shaun Williams, who joined the Anchorage office with Hoidal in December 2014 -- remain in Alaska.

Johnson said that by a fortunate coincidence, the vacancies come during a winter with relatively few crashes; the Federal Aviation Administration lists 77 crashes in Alaska this year, including 10 fatal crashes and 22 crash fatalities. Nearly half of those fatalities occurred in one crash, a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter that struck a rock face in the Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan on June 25, killing the pilot and nine cruise-ship passengers.

And Anchorage investigators backup available to them from other NTSB offices during the transition.

“We always have the ability to bring investigators up from the Lower 48,” Johnson said. “This is the best time of the year for this kind of thing to happen.”

Competition for the jobs is intensified by limited staffing at the NTSB nationwide, as well as the rarified skill sets required by investigators.

“It’s a very small agency -- 400 people total,” Johnson said. “As far as the field investigators, regional investigators, (there’s) less than 50 of us nationwide; a very small group.”

Johnson said each of the positions have steep requirements, with prospective air safety investigators expected to have pilot’s licenses and a minimum of roughly 1,500 hours of flight time.

“We hire from industry types,” Johnson said. “What we’re looking for is people who’ve been flying Part 135, Part 121 (air carrier flights) -- guys or gals who have been flying in the field.”

Aviation accident investigators require a master’s degree, ideally in a field like aeronautical engineering. Johnson said typical candidates include accident investigators hired by aircraft makers like Cessna or airlines like Delta, who already assist NTSB staff looking into crashes involving their employers.

Although the positions have different names and different entry thresholds, Johnson said the people who fill them end up doing essentially the same job.

“They’re investigating aircraft accidents and determining probable causes, and making recommendations to hopefully ensure they don’t happen again,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s own path to the NTSB began when his family sold their flight company, Alaska Helicopters, to Era Helicopters in 1995. Before that, he said, he spent 13 years doing various jobs with the Alaska Helicopters -- including transporting investigators to wrecked aircraft.

“I used to fly these guys to accident sites and I thought, ‘Man, that would be a cool job’ -- and I never thought I’d be doing it later on,” Johnson said. “It’s a great job, I’ve gotta tell you.”


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