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Private planes tell no tales; NTSB, FAA must work harder for clues p2

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its preliminary report about the Aug. 25, 2014, private plane crash we were discussing in our last post. The pilot and three passengers were all students at Case Western Reserve University; the flight was apparently a short sightseeing excursion. Shortly after takeoff, though, the 20-year-old pilot radioed the control tower that he was having trouble gaining altitude. The plane crashed, and the four occupants died, either on impact or in the fire that followed.

Determining the cause of the crash is harder with small planes, because there are no flight data recorders or voice recorders. As we said in our last post, the NTSB will have to rely on circumstantial evidence to complete its investigation.

Before we discuss the preliminary findings, we thought we would take a moment to explain what is meant by "circumstantial." Understanding the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence makes it easier to understand how difficult it is to investigate small, private plane accidents like this one.

First, "evidence" is something -- anything, really -- that proves or disproves a fact. Direct evidence comes from eyewitnesses, people with personal knowledge of the events. For example, a woman who survives an airplane crash tells investigators that she saw a flock of geese fly into one of the engines: direct evidence. Or, the NTSB analyzes the engine of that plane and finds blood, tissue and feathers from geese: circumstantial evidence of a bird strike.

Circumstantial evidence may support direct evidence -- as it does in the above example -- but it may also be the only evidence available. In the Ohio accident, the hope is that the charred debris of the aircraft provides the NTSB with some clues to explain the crash, because none of the people with personal knowledge of what happened on the plane survived.

What kind of things are the NTSB looking for, and what have they found so far? We'll discuss that in our next post.

Source: Cleveland.com, "Was the plane that crashed in Willoughby Hills overloaded? Things investigators may consider," John Harper, Aug. 26, 2014

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