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Consider aircraft accident investigators in your average first- or second-world nation. Something like the US NTSB, the French BEA, the Canadian TSB, the Australian TSB, ... (whichever you happen to be most familiar with is fine)

Now, most of the time, aviation ticks along nicely. Aircraft take off, aircraft cruise, aircraft land. Aircraft are checked up and maintained. It's not like you are going to call in an accident investigation team for a hard landing or a broken light bulb.

Yet when something does happen (especially in a known location) that warrants an investigation, investigators are on the scene quickly, not uncommonly within hours of an incident.

Considering how long investigations can take to complete, it seems likely that multiple teams would be needed, so that one can be brought in quickly without unnecessarily disrupting any ongoing investigation. (Aircraft incidents do, unfortunately, happen more often than once every several years, especially in large countries with significant amounts of air traffic.) On the other hand, incidents happen rarely enough that it seems to me, most of the time, a large number of such investigators would basically be sitting around just waiting for something to go wrong. That doesn't seem reasonable, so...

What do these people actually do while aviation pretty much just works?

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    $\begingroup$ Considering how long it takes to get an official report out after the incident actually occurs, I'd say they're busy, you know, investigating... ;) $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 17 '17 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ let's hope they aren't praying for work! $\endgroup$ – Michael Oct 18 '17 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Or, even worse, generating work!.... Hmmmm.... <incipient idea for thriller plot>. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Oct 20 '17 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ @OscarBravo Cue second investigation team that just can't figure out why the incident rate skyrockets whenever Joe is on duty. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 20 '17 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ Also, note that of the four agencies you mentioned, only one exclusively handles aviation issues. It's possible that some staff (likely less technical) also deal with rail, sea, road etc. incidents. $\endgroup$ – Someone Somewhere Oct 22 '17 at 7:34
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NTSB investigators handle General Aviation incidents that you never hear about, as well as the Commercial incidents that make the nightly news.

There are new incidents every single day.
Try reading AVHerald for a sense of what happens, or searching the NTSB Aviation Database.

They have plenty of work.

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    $\begingroup$ If only you could monitor all the airport frequencies and count the number of times in the day someone says the word "phone number"... $\endgroup$ – J... Oct 17 '17 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Also remember NTSB isn't fixated on aviation. They investigate train accidents, and other public transit accidents. $\endgroup$ – Billy C. Oct 18 '17 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Strawberry: TBH, I was suprised that there are so few crashes and accidents, given the number of flights just an this very moment: flightradar24.com . Adjusting my work commute to minimize public traffic is way more important to me; especially since I entered the world of work, I have been part of quite a large number of near-accidents which would have been deadly to many (German Autobahns, combined with too many Germans "having it under control", you know). Planes even seem safer than staircases at railstations, to me. $\endgroup$ – phresnel Oct 19 '17 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ Look at how many of those incidents still result in passengers getting to their destination safe-n-sound, with only a minor delay. Landing Gear problems, engine failures, bird strikes, and all manner of issues, but no one is injured or killed, and only has a minor delay. Aviation is truly remarkable. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Oct 19 '17 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @BillyC. They have separate departments for each type of transportation, while they may certainly help each other out I think a lot is specialized and they typically stay within each department. $\endgroup$ – fooot Oct 19 '17 at 18:26
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It's not like you are going to call in an accident investigation team for a hard landing or a broken light bulb.

For a hard landing you certainly would. They'd just send one or two investigators, but they'd still want to see the report generated by the system, interview the pilots, possibly download the FDR and CVR data. And then they'll analyse the situation and may further inquire into the training procedures and pilot pairing and a lot of things. It's not just analysis of the big accidents, but constant review of all the safety procedures that keeps the operation safe.

On the other hand, incidents happen rarely enough

Incident is any occurrence that might affect safety. Hard landing is an incident. Engine failure is an incident, as is failure of any other flight-related system like air conditioning, electric generator, anti-ice, flight control etc. Pilot incapacitation is an incident. Incorrect ATC instruction is an incident, as is incorrect execution of a correct instruction. Many things are.

All these things are reported to the investigation board. And then they decide how much they are going to investigate them. Sometimes they look at the report, conclude that the safety checks worked and there is no point in investigating further, other times they will do more or less careful review of those checks. And sometimes they will return to the reports when they notice some kind of incident is unusually common, as it likely indicates some underlying problem that should be addressed.

So they do have a lot of work even if there is no major accident.

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    $\begingroup$ Is "Harrison Ford getting in his plane" an incident? : ) $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Oct 18 '17 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @GrimmTheOpiner, only when he's flying solo. $\endgroup$ – Wossname Oct 19 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Wossname I'm not sure I'd feel better with someone like Tom Cruise up front left. Lots of people in their field have an ugly tendency to get into trouble... :-) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 19 '17 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ And yes, they actually do investigate things like a hard landing; I just read such a report earlier today: three pages of statistics about the plane, pilot and airport, and two sentences describing the damage and blaming the pilot for a bad flare. I imagine that's what they do to keep in practice while waiting for the next airliner to go down. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Nov 27 '18 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenSprunk, they do it to try to delay the next airliner going down as much as possible; the statistics are to notice systemic issues early, in this case probably whether the quality of recurrent training in the airline declines. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 28 '18 at 14:21
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A broken light bulb absolutely can result in an accident investigation. An indicator failing is not in itself a problem, but the crew's reaction to that failed indicator is very much something which accident investigators are interested in. Several similar accidents around the same time as Flight 401 emphasised an endemic problem of flight crew failing to keep situational awareness and actually fly the aircraft whilst fault-finding problems. That fed into improved training for pilots and engineers, as well as best practise for manuals.

So the assumption that aviation "just ticks along nicely" is not really true. These days we have many fewer accidents, but part of that comes from constant scrutiny, and that constant scrutiny needs people. And it can be quite small things which show up a bigger problem.

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    $\begingroup$ Do note the difference between light bulb and cockpit indicator light. A light bulb could be the indicator light for the landing gear down/locked position (that's one that you certainly would rather have working), or it could be one of the gazillions of "do not smoke" illuminated signs in the cabin of a large airliner. When writing that comment, I had in mind more the latter than the former. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 17 '17 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ So what do they do between accidents? Is this an answer to that question? $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Oct 17 '17 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling If people start smoking because of that light not being on, it could also be a kind of incident ;-) $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 17 '17 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @VladimirF Fair point. I've added a second paragraph for clarification. $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 18 '17 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling: Which, judging from the number I've seen burned out in all my flying, nobody seems to care much (or at all) if they burn out. $\endgroup$ – Sean Aug 18 '18 at 23:08
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Investigators take turns being on the "go team", in which they are expected to be able to travel within short notice to investigate an incident. While the major accident investigations dominate headlines, there are many other responsibilities of investigating agencies to keep the agents busy. Examples in this post come from the NTSB's 2016 Annual Report, where they detail accomplishments.

Small Incidents

The NTSB is tasked with investigating "each accident involving civil aircraft." This includes not only commercial airliners but also general aviation. In 2016 they released 1,272 accident briefs. Although these will generally not be anywhere near the complexity of an airliner accident, it still requires gathering information, reviewing evidence, determining causes, and compiling reports. They also assist in some international investigations.

Recommendations

Investigating agencies also issue recommendations to regulators about how safety can be improved. Recommendations may arise from a single incident, or multiple incidents sharing similar factors. This may require further investigation or research in order to justify the costs of new rules. They also must review the responses provided by regulators for these actions, and determine whether they acceptably address the recommendations. In 2016, the NTSB issued 54 new recommendations, closed 48 as acceptable, and closed 7 as unacceptable.

Outreach

Investigators also take part in presentations, seminars, and forums on safety topics. They also help produce safety alerts and videos.

Training

As with any job, there is plenty of ongoing training to stay current with laws, technology, and tools that affect their jobs.

Although the NTSB investigates transportation incidents in other areas besides aviation, each type of transportation has a different office, and investigators are assigned to a certain office. The Aviation Safety office is by far the largest. While investigators may help out other offices, many skills are specialized and they generally don't work on incidents for other offices.

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Knowing a few members of aviation safety boards myself, most of them do have a 'normal' job besides their work for the safety board. Board members who might play an important role at accident investigation do have a suitcase packed in case they need to hurry to an accident location. But besides that, when nothing happens, they just live their normal lives.

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    $\begingroup$ "they just live their normal lives", well obviously, don't well all? The question asks what work they do in the time between crash investigations. -1 $\endgroup$ – nobism Oct 17 '17 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ Are you talking about the actual board members (of which there are only 5 for the NTSB), or the accident investigators working for the agency managed by board? $\endgroup$ – Ross Ridge Oct 17 '17 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ What kind of "normal" job? Working in McDonalds? Or something else aviation-related? $\endgroup$ – Roger Lipscombe Oct 17 '17 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ @nobism Kinda lame to write "-1" when you don't even have the reputation to downvote. But, hey, it's a good job you don't, since your downvote is completely unfounded. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 17 '17 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby It's not uncommon to indicate "-1" in a comment even if one doesn't downvote. Sometimes that can be because the answer is not good, but it's already low enough compared to other answers that it's not a problem, sometimes it's because you don't have the required rep yet. Nothing lame about that. $\endgroup$ – David Mulder Oct 17 '17 at 11:15
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I can only speak to traffic investigations - but am guessing it is similar. An investigation requires a variety of skill sets. For a large traffic investigation, there would be agency police officers, detectives, traffic engineers and surveyors that would make up the investigation team. Each of these responders do have a regular work load (engineering, surveying, law enforcement in the agency) when there is not an accident. However, they also attend training and exercises as needed.

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An accident investigation team is usually made up of representatives of multiple organizations: the government is one, but there are also representatives from the airframer and any suppliers of parts that have been determined to be likely at least in part responsible for the accident.

I work for a supplier of a major aircraft part. The way my company does it is that we have a small accident investigation team that is ready to go when needed. They get special training in how to respond. But their full-time jobs are not accident investigation. They are engineers within the company doing a variety of jobs, including other safety assurance processes (of which we have a whole department), validation of new engines, design, reliability, etc.

I will also note that we are doing constant low-level investigations of events, such as part failures, fault messages, delays and cancellations. We have a robust mechanism for reporting and investigating safety concerns, and on top of that we are constantly working to improve reliability (minimize inconvenience to our customers, even if faults are not a safety concern).

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