The Smithsonian Channel has now aired its new program “Alaska Aircrash Investigations,” spotlighting the work of the National Transportation Safety Board.
After negative pre-broadcast controversy stemming from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, viewers can now to come to their own conclusions about the documentary program’s relevance and sensitivity to its subject.
The episodes cover accidents that occurred in 2015, including both air taxi, commuter and general aviation operations. The camera crews were embedded with the NTSB as much as possible to take viewers through the initial investigation process. A narrator provides valuable context, graphics illustrate technical discoveries, the investigators explain what they are doing and, when permitted, interviews were conducted with family and friends of deceased pilots.
The NTSB has four regional offices, but Alaska is the only state with its own office, staffed by five investigators. According to the agency’s databases, the Last Frontier averaged 99 accidents annually since 2005, including the particularly devastating years of 2013, when 35 people were killed, and 2015, when 21 people lost their lives. In both those years there were high-profile crashes involving air taxis and commuters that gained national attention.
For Executive Producer Isaac Holub of Lucky 8 Productions, it was not the statistics that made the state the best setting for the program.
"Actually, we chose to create a show around the NTSB, not around accidents in Alaska," he explained recently via email. "Smithsonian Channel produces a lot of aviation-themed series, partially due to their association with the National Air and Space Museum. The NTSB has the responsibility for promoting safety in American aviation, but it has often been overlooked. Alaska's challenging conditions, and it dependency on aviation makes it a natural environment to show the NTSB at work."
Revealing to viewers how complex an investigator’s job can be is a key part of "Alaska Aircrash Investigations." There is not only the difficulty of physically getting to some crash sites but also, as evident in accidents in Trapper Creek and Knik Arm, the sensitivity crucial when interacting on-site with the public.
When asked how people involved in the crashes or encountered near the sites were made aware of the filming, Holub explained, “Every person on camera was informed by the production crew and by the NTSB staff that this production was for broadcast on Smithsonian Channel. We take these permissions very seriously, and we do not film anyone under false pretenses.”
In several of the episodes, studio interviews were also conducted with family and friends who spoke movingly about the pilots.
“As for the interview process: in most cases NTSB investigators would make the first approach to passengers or family members,” Holub wrote. “If the passengers or family members were willing, the producers would contact each participant, describe the show and have them sign a release form which clearly stated that the filming was for broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel. Some of the family members were willing, even eager, to talk further about the investigation, and in those cases, time was set aside for a more in-depth interview.”
It is the hands-on science and physics used by the investigation team that viewers will likely find most interesting. As revealed in the show, using what the NTSB refers to as the "Party System," the investigations include specialists from the airframe and engine manufacturers when analyzing the wreckage. Certain avionics equipment is shipped to Washington, D.C. for analysis and medical personnel, human performance investigators, meteorologists and air traffic control specialists will contribute if needed. Local representatives from the FAA, which is legally mandated to be a party system member, also may participate.
The efforts of all these individuals combine under the lead NTSB investigator, who builds a case to determine probable cause. The slow, precise detective work to get to that point might appear dull to viewers accustomed to the excesses of reality television, but is rarely in the public eye even though the final reports are available online.
“We are not on the shiny side of aviation,” NTSB Alaska region Chief Clint Johnson acknowledges in the program, and several of the investigators discuss the heavy responsibility of speaking to family members on “their most difficult day."
But as “Alaska Aircrash Investigations” makes clear, the work of the NTSB is the only way people will ever know what went wrong and -- especially in aviation-dependent Alaska -- an effective way of bringing positive change to the flying environment.
“The NTSB is an independent federal agency responsible for investigating transportation accidents, and we all take that responsibility very seriously,” Johnson said recently. “We are committed to transparency, and this project is living proof of that. Simply put, if this show keeps just one person from having an accident in the future, then we have done our job, and our efforts have been a success.”
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