FBI plays role in airline disaster investigations

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.

Airline disasters

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.



20 Comments on “FBI plays role in airline disaster investigations

  1. Hi Scott,

    In keeping with your request to avoid political discussions, is it possible to simply not have any active reader comments for this post?

    I understand why you believed it appropriate to remind everyone one of the danger posed by “current events” and how important the FBI is to the aviation and aerospace sectors.

    [Edited as this portion of the Comment is now moot given the Edit of a previous Comment. Note to Readers: The suggestion to close comments is noted.]

    Thanks and best regards,


  2. That didn’t work very well did it Scott?Non Americans are totally baffled anyway.

    • Come, come. This is an international industry and we all should have a universal perspective, which means that ‘non-Americans’ are indeed aware of domestic U.S. political shenanigans and are not ‘totally baffled’ by Scott’s considerateness. Some of us have a broader view, not limited by what might appear superficially to be ‘first, always, and only’ parochialism.

  3. As an outstander, I must say the trust worthiness of the FBI might be higher at this stage than the credibility of the ones questioning it. I see it as a somewhat bureaucratic organisation with high standards in defense of public interest. Objective, less driven by individual cases & short term opportunism. As such support of specialized organisations in handling disasters seems logic.

  4. They had to go back 15yrs to find something positive to say about the agency. Not a good sign.

  5. (Edited. Second violation of explicit instructions.)

    I will remind everyone this is my blog and I make the rules.

    @texl is suspended for two weeks for violating the rules.

  6. Tomas James Thurman had the best eyes in the FBI as he found the printed circuit board in the African desert after the DC10 was bombed at 35,000 ft then turned up in Scotland to assist on Pan Am 103 bombing then along side with witness Orkin of the CIA who had a timer seized in Togo from Libyan terrorists in his office and along side with our famous Tommy made a match to Libya timer made in Switzerland by MEBO in 1983/84/85 problem there is the one Witness Orkin had was made after 1986 as the printed circuit board had a nymph Crystal made after the summer of 1986 long after MEBO had sold the 20 to Libya then came Fred Whitehurst and closed the FBI lab down owing to the lab employees not qualified forensic scientists who made up things as they went along I can go on but that is just the tip of the iceberg more to come later.

  7. What authority does the FBI have in military aviation accidents? I never watched JAG 🙂

    • We’d have to focus closer: FBI investigating on their own volition ( resp. being legally required to … )
      being co-opted by other Federal Organizations to support their investigations.

      Who was the lead for investigating the Challenger Disaster? NASA, NTSB, .. ?

      • Uwe: I don’t think Coopted is the right word.

        Asked to assist and I believe normally do.

  8. Maybe in the title of this thread has the letter H missing.
    No politics of course.

  9. Odd subject and nebulous relevancy?

    Hot button issue with past performance and current aspects to put it mildly.

  10. Here in the UK the police play a role in generally assisting an investigation.

    What’s quite interesting is that the Air Accident Investigation Board has more powers than the police and prosecution authorities, in terms of entry to private property, speaking to people, etc. AFAIK they are not obliged to share any evidence they have with the police. Their sole role is to determine what went wrong. It’s not their job to act on an attribution of blame .

    • I know that because I have being trying to get the information on the Lockerbie case under the freedom of information act still no luck so I called a mr Bass and conned the information out of him that I wanted.

  11. I know that because I have being trying to get the information on the Lockerbie case under the freedom of information act still no luck so I called a mr Bass and conned the information out of him that I wanted.

  12. The FBI is also involved when American citizens are involved in foreign accidents.
    Eg. the (still missing) 727-200 N844AA.

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