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Crash: What to do when the worst happensCrash: What to do when the worst happens

You're sitting in your office talking to a prospective student when the phone rings. There's been an accident. A bad one. Your heart goes to your throat. Who, what aircraft, how many aboard? What the... No firm details yet, but the Sheriff's Department is on scene and it's not looking good. They'll keep you posted. 

Your mind is a blur. Your next call is from the local NBC affiliate. Can you confirm that the fatal accident involved one of your aircraft? You don't know what to say. How can the TV station know more about the accident than you do? You stammer a nonsensical answer about not having all the information yet. Your world has just changed. What do you do now?

Unfortunately, this scenario plays out all too frequently when an aircraft goes down. Grief, worry, and fear form an emotional soup that severely limits your ability to think clearly and act rationally. This is where your ability to manage the situation (or not) can have far-ranging consequences, both for your flight school and yourself.

Flight training professionals who have experienced this will tell you that having a written plan for dealing with a bad accident can make all the difference. Just as a checklist can go a long way toward saving a panicked pilot, so can an action plan keep the post-accident process moving in the right direction. This plan should designate which team members are responsible for talking to the authorities, media, insurance companies, and attorneys. It should be reviewed and updated periodically as staff changes occur.

The first thing you do when learning of a major accident is to dig out that that action plan and start down the steps:

  1. Take a deep breath. Notify the FAA and NTSB immediately that there has been an accident. Your action plan should list all pertinent names and phone numbers. It's possible that these agencies already know about it, but your notification puts you on the record. Keep in mind that it is your responsibility to preserve the wreckage so the NTSB can do a good investigation.
  2. Gather all team members and tell them that there's been an accident. Tell them to lock their office and hangar doors, go home, and advise them not to talk to news media. Have them refer all inquiries to the appropriate party within your school. Put out the “Closed” sign.
  3. Call your insurance company and tell it what happened. Your insurance company will tell you what to do, and will put somebody on the case immediately. Be sure your action plan includes the appropriate phone numbers, and document the date and time of your call.
  4. Call your aviation attorney. Your action plan should include contact info for an attorney who specializes in aviation accident defense. Your attorney will work with your insurance company attorneys and may only play a support role, but having an attorney on your side immediately following notification can save confusion and miscommunication. He or she may also prepare a press release for distribution to media and may agree to be the point person for news inquiries.
  5. If approved by your attorney and insurance company, contact the families of the victims and tell them there has been an accident. Your attorney will guide you on what to say. This may well be the hardest thing you ever have to do.
  6. Cooperate with FAA and NTSB in their investigations. Expect these agencies, as well as the aircraft manufacturer, to set up shop in your facility during the investigation. The objective of the FAA and NTSB will be to uncover the facts, but the goal of the manufacturer's rep will be to lobby that the aircraft had no defects that could have caused the accident. Don't get mad; just stay calm and let the process work.
  7. Acknowledge that you're experiencing a major trauma. These will be very challenging times—for yourself, your team, and the flight school—but mainly to the victims' families and loved ones. Many will be looking to you for leadership, so lead. Assure them that everything than can be done is being done. Encourage your team to talk openly to each other about the impact the accident is having, and perhaps arrange for counseling services if needed. Things will get better with time.

The following weeks and months will be painful, spent conducting damage control and dealing with the legal action that will likely ensue. Expect to make several trips to attorney’s offices for depositions and to review investigation documents. Both your insurance company and attorney have been through this before, so follow their advice.


Your goals throughout the process should be to see to it that families and others are treated compassionately and with the utmost respect, while at the same time protecting your business interests. Done properly, you will get through this with just bad memories and several lessons learned. Done poorly, the management of this accident can have devastating consequences to your business and, by extension, your personal life.

Bottom line: Create a good action plan. Put it in writing. Share it with key members of your team so everybody is on the same page if that dreaded call comes through. Then hope and pray that it just becomes another waste of paper in a binder on your bookshelf.

William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California. 

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