Friday, December 8, 2017

Aviation-Related Accident Investigations in Ghana – A Way Forward

Okatakyie Kwasi Adjekum, Ph.D 

The recent aviation-related safety event (Runway excursion during take-off) involving a Starbow Airline ATR 42-700 aircraft at the Kotoka International Airport (KIA) has once again prompted the urgent need for a permanent aviation safety board to conduct aviation -related accident investigations in Ghana. Having written extensively on this topic in previous articles since 2008, it is heart-warming that some efforts have been made in the recent amendments of the Ghana Civil Aviation Act (Act 906, 2016).

The new Act brings aviation-related accident investigations in Ghana to conform with the International Civil Aviation Organization Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) Annex 13. Annex 13 SARPs deals with the conduct and management of aircraft accident investigations. However, there are still some challenges and room for improvement. This article seeks to highlight current aircraft accident investigation protocols in Ghana, some challenges and recommend a way forward.

Currently, aviation -related accidents and incidents investigations are under the mandate of the Ministry of Aviation as opposed to the previous practice where it was under the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and most of the investigators in charge (IIC) and investigators were co-opted from that outfit. The problem with the former was the obvious conflict of interest for investigators who are part of GCAA and may at times identify and must report on potential administrative and regulatory lapses/weakness of a regulatory entity tasked with investigative functions (investigating itself).

Under the provisions of the new act, GCAA Act 906 (2016) Section, whenever there is any aviation-related accident or occurrences in Ghana or the territorial waters of Ghana, The State of Ghana shall institute an investigation into the circumstances of the accident and shall also be responsible for the conduct of the investigation. Ghana can also delegate the whole or any part of the conducting of such investigation to another State by mutual arrangement and consent.

Under Section 13.6 of the Act, the Minister for Aviation shall order and appoint an independent investigation into any accident involving a civil aircraft whether such accident is required to be notified under these Regulations or not, and may appoint or designate any person qualified as an Accident Investigator to be an Investigator-in-Charge of the Accident for initiating and carrying out the investigation immediately and reporting as soon as possible after the report is issued.

While this provision meets the ICAO Annex 13 SARPs requirements, it may not be the best in terms of proactivity and sustainability of safety management in Ghana’s aviation sector. The formation of such ad-hoc committees and investigations stifles continuity of an organized and business-like approach to accident investigation and proactive safety management system. It can also have an adverse effect on the expeditiousness of such investigations, since experts and resources may have to be sourced from both external and internal means to facilitate such investigations. This is even more relevant when faced with a chaotic environment of a mass-casualty aviation accident.

Aviation accidents, though rare in terms of occurrence per hundreds of thousand flight hours could be stochastic in nature which may require a well-equipped and trained preliminary team of investigators to collect essential crash data and conduct on-site crash analysis within a time-sensitive window. It may be difficult to scramble such “Go-teams” when we depend on an ad-hoc committee that needs to be formed by a Minister. We also need a permanent office/facility where accident reports and safety analysis from such reports can be archived, crash analysis laboratory can be located and research into aviation safety conducted.

Ghana Aviation Safety Board

It is within these framework, that I strongly moot the idea of the Ghana Aviation Safety Board (GASB). The GASB will be an independent but permanent entity under the Ministry of Aviation and will improve safety and public confidence in the aviation through excellence in independent investigation of aviation accidents and other safety occurrences, safety data recording, analysis and research, fostering safety awareness, knowledge and action. I propose a GASB composed of five (5) board members nominated to a fixed tenure of 4 years by the Minister of Aviation and confirmed by a parliamentary-select committee on Transport or Aviation.

The confirmed board shall elect one of their members as the chairperson. Membership to the board shall be based on subject-matter/technical expertise in the field of aviation safety. The board shall oversee a permanent secretariat/facility where GASB administrative and technical offices will be located. A staff of investigators, administrators and financial personnel commensurate to the scale and scope of the board’s mandate and operation shall be maintained. The recurring expenditure of the board shall be charged to the consolidated chest. Every accident investigation shall be led by a selected member of the board, who will have oversight over the various investigation teams.

The GASB’s primary focus will be the safety of the travelling public and one of the objectives of the board will be to concentrate its resources on those investigations considered most likely to enhance aviation safety. When the GASB investigates an accident or incident, investigators will seek to determine its circumstances, identify any safety issues, and encourage relevant safety action. The aim of all GASB investigations will be to prevent the occurrence of other accidents and incidents, rather than to assign blame or liability. This approach helps ensure the continued free flow of safety information for the purposes of improving safety in the future.

GASB Accident Investigations

The GASB will be tasked with on-site aircraft accident investigations which will be detailed investigations where investigators travel to the site of the accident. GASB investigators will be responsible for the wreckage and the site's safety when control of the site is handed over to the GASB after emergency services have declared that it is safe. The investigators will photograph and record all the evidence on the ground or associated with the wreckage of the aircraft, and later examine the aircraft's logbooks and maintenance records.

They may then arrange for the aircraft wreckage, components and other material evidence to be transported to some other secure area, for further examination and testing. Consistent with international practices, it will be accepted protocol for GASB investigators to seek information or assistance in a manner that encourages cooperation and the GASB will liaise with other parties who have an interest.

To reconstruct the sequence of events preceding the accident, GASB investigators will, where necessary, interview the flight crew, passengers and other witnesses. They may also visit the departure and destination airfields and interview the pilots’ acquaintances and officials, including air traffic controllers, who may have been in contact with the flight crew either during or before the flight. They will generally ask for records relating to the flight crew training and experience, and may require company documents relating to the aircraft's operation.

GASB will also require data concerning airfield operations if the accident occurred during the takeoff, approach or landing phase of flight. Maintenance records and interviews with maintenance personnel may also be required. Aircraft accident reports can take several months to produce. It may be necessary to interview numerous individuals, cross-check evidence, examine suspect equipment and consult other technical experts. That can include overseas investigation agencies, regulators, and manufacturers.

Powers of Subpoena and Granting of Immunity

For the purposes of safety investigations and free-flow of information vital for flight safety, it will be important for the accident investigators of the GASB to assure witnesses some form of self-incrimination immunity when required to testify before the accident investigation board under the powers of the GCAA Act 906. This will be a better option than the current provisions under Act 906, Section 40D (1) (2) which I deem coercive and intimidating.

The section grants the Director General of GCAA the power to compel witnesses to appear and testify before the Investigations Committee or in matters relating to the investigation of an accident; or a person to produce books, papers or documents required by the Investigations Committee or for investigation of accidents. Refusal to respond to such subpoena is an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than six hundred penalty units or, to a term of imprisonment of not more than three months.

The proposed powers to grant immunity by the investigators will ensure that privileged Information provided under these circumstances cannot be used against the person in criminal or civil proceedings. However, if at any time investigators uncover any acts that are criminal or imply deliberate or malevolent actions/sabotage on the part of witnesses, such immunity can be waived. Safety -relevant information that is obtained during the investigation including from directly involved parties may be disclosed in the GASB report.

GASB Accident Reports

One of the most important aspects of any accident investigation is the prompt release of findings, conclusion and safety recommendations to the relevant stake-holders and the public. The greatest challenge for the Ghanaian aviation sector has been the mode of dissemination of finalized accident/incident reports and ease of accessibility. As at now it is very challenging to access final accident reports of aviation-related accidents for research and industry review purposes. My interaction with a lot of aviation professionals in Ghana suggest that access to database or documentary archives of findings and recommendations from aviation accident reports are virtually non-existent.

Under the current structure, the investigative board for aircraft accidents in Ghana are required under Section 13.12.1 of Act 906 to submit a report to the Minister of Aviation stating all relevant facts about the accident and conclusion about the causes of the accident together with observations and recommendations. The Minister shall make comments and if the Minister thinks fit, cause the whole or any part of such report to be published. I will recommend that the preliminary findings, conclusions and recommendations on draft accident reports be subjected to a majority vote by the members of GASB prior to acceptance as a final draft. However, dissenting opinions may be written by non-concurring members and added to the final draft before submission to the Minister of Aviation for comments and release.

Proactive Safety Reporting and Data-Base Management

The GCAA Act 906 calls for the establishment of a mandatory incident reporting system to facilitate collection of information on actual or potential safety deficiencies. The Act also calls for the establishment of a voluntary incident reporting system to facilitate the collection of information that may not be captured by a mandatory incident reporting system. This voluntary incident reporting system shall be non-punitive and afford protection to the sources of information. The establishment of the GASB will be a step in the right direction to serve as an independent repository for all such safety reporting system where non-jeopardy reports from aviation professionals can be used for safety analysis and predictive studies aimed at improving aviation safety in Ghana.

Another requirement of the Act which is the establishment of a National Aviation Safety Data-Base will be best facilitated by the creation of the GASB. Researchers in academia, industry professionals and regulators such as the GCAA can access this incident/accident data-base to conduct trend analysis and predictive studies on aviation safety in Ghana and the West-African sub-region. Such a data-base will also facilitate info-share for cross-collaborative studies with aviation safety organizations such as the Nigerian Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), NTSB of USA and AAIB of the UK. The safety data-base will also facilitate effective analysis of the information obtained from incident reporting systems.

The GASB shall also promote the establishment of safety information sharing networks among all stakeholders of the aviation systems such as the GCAA, Ghana Airports Company Limited, Ghana Meteorological Agency, Ghana Air Force and Domestic Airlines through the free exchange of information on actual and potential safety deficiencies identified during predictive safety analysis of aviation data. With the required investments and political will to act, Ghana can have a responsive and proactive aviation safety board.

Okatakyie Kwasi Adjekum, Ph.D., CSP, ASP

Aviation Safety Consultant @ AeroProSafe Consult, Grand Forks. ND.

Original article can be found here ➤

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