Feb. 2, 2018, © Leeham Co.: It was 15 years ago yesterday that the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas and Louisiana as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere following a mission.
At a time when the Federal Bureau of Investigation is under siege in the US, it’s easy to forget that the agency routinely plays a role in aerospace investigations.
The FBI played a crucial role in the Columbia investigation. Agents—more than 500 of them at one point—helped identify pieces of the debris, enabling NASA to determine where on the Shuttle the pieces belonged.
The FBI also played a crucial role in identifying remains of the seven astronauts who died in the disaster.
The story may be found here.
It’s not generally known that the FBI also is an important part of airline disaster investigations.
Certainly, it’s known and assumed that the FBI participates in disasters with obvious criminal overtones: sabotage, such as bombings for profit or insurance; terrorist bombings, such as the so-called shoe- or underwear-bombers, and 9/11.
During the propeller and early jet age days, the US airline industry suffered several bombings in which insurance was the motive: a United Airlines Douglas DC-6 out of Denver and a Continental Airlines Boeing 707 over the Plain States are just two examples.
The FBI played a highly visible role in the investigation of the in-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800. This flight blew up shortly after take off from New York. Early speculation was it was a terrorist act or even an accidental missile shoot down by a nearby US Navy exercise.
The FBI at one point declared the event to be a terrorist act. The thorough investigation proved the FBI wrong, however. The empty center fuel tank and frayed wiring combined to ignite fumes, as detailed by Christine Negroni in her book, Deadly Departure. Information may be found here.
Even when there is no immediate suspicion of a criminal act, the FBI participates in airline disaster investigation.
“They get involved immediately and stay involved only until the event is determined to be an accident and not intentional act,” a former investigator for the US National Transportation Safety Board tells LNC. “They do assist in body ID if requested and other tasks such as witness interview (TWA800). Forensic services are also available if the Safety Board needs it.”
NOTE TO READERS: Comments should be confined to the FBI role in accident investigations. The current political environment is not part of this post, other than the set-up in Paragraph 2.—Editor.