What role does the FBI play in the investigation of an aviation accident?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Under federal law, most “major” airplane crashes (approximately 2,000 annually) are under the jurisdiction of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB has the power to designate other agencies as “parties” to the investigation: once a crime is suspected, the FBI will be designated as the lead party by the NTSB. The FBI’s initial role is to investigate the possibility of sabotage or some other criminal act that may have contributed to the accident. Though the FBI is frequently consulted in many aviation crashes, they take over jurisdiction only in cases where criminal acts apparently form the reason or motive for the accident, or where some specific federal law requires FBI involvement.

Role of the FBI

The role of the FBI is usually dependent on where the crash occurs and what local resources are available. For instance, the FBI has a special training agreement with Universal Studios in California to teach plane crash investigation training in their facilities. Its evidence response team (ERT) training makes the FBI staff in California some of the best experts in crash scene investigations.

Examples of FBI Involvement

There have also been more post-9/11 instances where the FBI will act as the lead agency in plane crashes. For example, when a solo plane crashed into an Austin, Texas office building in February 2010, the FBI was placed almost immediately in charge of the investigation. One of the triggers for the immediate FBI placement was the discovery that the pilot had also burned down his home. Since this evidence pointed toward the likelihood of a crime scene rather than an aviation accident, it was necessary to have a comprehensive response from the FBI.

When the plane carrying US Senator Paul Wellstone crashed in 2002, the FBI entered the investigation almost automatically. Though not the lead agency in the investigation, the FBI had special resources to obtain evidence of possible crimes. For example, the FBI searched Senator Wellstone’s office and obtained threatening correspondence. However, the role of the FBI was not to pursue this as a criminal aviation case. Instead, the FBI contacted the Washington, D.C. police department’s Threat Assessment Division and shared the threatening postcard as evidence of a potential crime, within D.C.’s jurisdiction.

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