Use of air crash transcripts must be ‘pertinent’ to investigation

International aviation and EU rules do not ban inclusion of cockpit voice recordings of final moments from investigation reports

The wreckage of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter, Rescue 116, which crashed off the west coast  on March 14th. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The wreckage of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter, Rescue 116, which crashed off the west coast on March 14th. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The International Civil Aviation Organisation and European Union rules lay down that transcripts of the final moments before an aircraft crashes are included in investigation reports when they are “pertinent” to the investigation.

Contrary to claims made yesterday, the ICAO’s Annex 13, and the comparable European Union regulation, which is written in almost identical fashion, does not ban publication of cockpit voice recordings.

Instead, the ICAO regulation paragraph 5.12.1 states: “These records shall be included in the final report or its appendices only when pertinent to the analysis of the accident or incident. Parts of the records not relevant to the analysis shall not be disclosed.”

Information should not be published, “unless the appropriate authority for the administration of justice in that State determines that their disclosure outweighs the adverse domestic and international impact such action may have on that or any future investigations”.

Dozens of air crash investigation reports available online – via sites such as planecrashinfo.com, aviationexplorer.com and tailstrike.com – republish cockpit voice recorders transcripts taken from official reports.

In all cases, the transcripts are verbatim reproductions of what was said between crew members and air traffic controllers in the moments before crashes, usually fatal for all on board, with the only editing being the removal of expletives.

‘Thirst for sensationalism’

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) yesterday condemned the publication of the exchanges in the final minutes of Rescue 116.

The publication was “unwarranted, unacceptable, [and] counterproductive to flight safety”, that it contravened internationally agreed principles and was done only to feed “a thirst for sensationalism” has been questioned by aviation experts.

The transcript of the R116 exchanges are between the commander pilot, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, her co-pilot Mark Duffy, and a member of the rear crew, believed to be with winch man Paul Ormsby before it crashed.

Acknowledging that not all of the families of the R116 crew agree with the position taken by the pilots’ association, the president of Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association (IALPA), Capt Evan Cullen said that it believed the complete transcript should not have been released and that only the technical references should have been included: “We’re not saying it should never be revealed, but only when the report is completed and it backs up the facts.”

Safety recommendation

The association had had no problem with the complete transcript being shared with the families, investigators and other helicopter crews. However, it was not appropriate “to be found on the front page of papers”, he said.

However, Mr Cullen’s opinions are not shared by others in the aviation industry. A former pilot and air accident investigator who spoke on condition that he was not identified said publication was justified and necessary because it supported a safety recommendation in the report.

“You have to back it up with facts. The report would support the fact that there was nothing apparently wrong with the helicopter and that obviously is very important for the manufacturer and other users to know,” he said.

The report recommended that helicopter operators CHC Ireland should “review all route guides in use by its SAR [search and rescue] helicopters in Ireland, with a view to enhancing the information provided on obstacle heights and positions, terrain clearance, vertical profile, the positions of waypoints in relation to obstacles and the EGPWS [enhanced ground proximity warning system] database terrain and obstacle limitations”.