Academics at Cranfield University have developed the first competency framework for aircraft accident investigators, which aims to distinguish the ‘great’ from the ‘good’ in this highly-specialised and demanding field.

Researchers from the university’s Safety and Accident Investigation Centre analysed tasks typically carried out by air accident investigators and interviewed current post holders to find the qualities of the most effective investigators.

They discovered that, alongside the high level of aviation knowledge and technical skill that is common to all investigators, those working at a high level shared certain other behaviours and abilities that elevated their work above the rest.

The research was carried out by Dr Jim Nixon, Lecturer in Human Factors, and Professor Graham Braithwaite, Professor of Safety and Accident Investigation.

Dr Nixon said:  “In recruitment, the idea of using someone’s qualifications and experience as evidence of their ability to do a job is well-established. It is now also routine for many recruiters to employ psychometric testing and/or work assessments to differentiate applicants. But, when it comes to roles like air accident investigation, it can be difficult to articulate what differentiates the ‘great’ from the ‘good’, and how to transition the latter to the former.

“Speaking to people who came onto our professional development courses in accident investigation, we noticed that some investigators were held in high esteem by their colleagues, but the reason why was difficult to determine. Answers tended to be non-specific, such as ‘they are good to work with’ or ‘they get on with the job’. It seemed that superlative technical knowledge, skills and ability was assumed. The ‘x-factor’ was more difficult to pin down.”

In compiling their research, Dr Nixon and Professor Braithwaite interviewed current air accident investigators with high-level expertise across military, civil fixed-wing, rotary-wing, and engineering and flight operations. They found a total of 19 shared competencies common to accident investigation as a whole, which were:

  • Investigative skills – An awareness of bias and how to manage it in the investigative process, an evidence-led approach, the ability to objectively evaluate evidence and data, and openness to discussion and challenge
  • Personal characteristics – Awareness of the elements of their character that assist and hinder the investigative process and technique, ability to be empathetic, ability to be innovative and ‘think outside the box’, and motivation and commitment to the role
  • Formal communication skills – Effective writing skills and effective presentation skills
  • Advanced communication skills – An ability to modify communication strategy depending on situation or audience, and an understanding of how the social elements of verbal interaction affect strategy
  • Team-working – Ability to operate as part of an inter or intra-agency team, including engaging internationally with different cultures
  • Professional development – An ability to recognise and address personal development needs, as well as to evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in order to improve in role
  • Organisational commitment – An understanding of the role of the organisation and the wider purpose of the investigation, as well as the ability to work to standards laid down by the regulator
  • Management skills – The ability to lead and manage people, as well as to plan and manage time and resources to achieve objectives.

Air accident investigation is a highly-specialised field. As well as helping to select and train new investigators, it is hoped the new competency framework will be used to develop education for existing post holders to coach them to better performance.

Dr Nixon said: “Air accident investigation is a demanding role, not because any component part of the tasks involved is particularly difficult, but because the job as a whole draws on such a wide range of skills.

“Accidents in themselves are complex: they happen without warning and often come with political and other sensitivities to consider – especially where there is loss of life. Investigations – frequently involving multi-national, multi-disciplinary teams – are convened at short notice and are often under pressure from society, industry and various governments to report quickly on findings even though the investigation may continue for many years.

“In the UK, we already have an excellent safety record in aviation but, in order to strengthen that further, we need to make sure we know what superior performance looks like in this field and invest in training all our accident investigators to that level.”

Notes for editors

About Cranfield University

Cranfield is an exclusively postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management

Cranfield Transport Systems

Cranfield has over 50 years’ experience in transport, including the aviation, automotive, motorsport, military and marine sectors.

We are the only university in Europe to own and run an airport and to have airline status. 

Our education and award-winning research covers all modes of vehicles and transport across technology, engineering and management, including sustainable transport and intelligent mobility. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, we specialise in understanding the whole environment in which transport operates: the vehicles, infrastructure, businesses and logistics, as well as the human aspects of operating, managing and using transport.

Our world-class facilities include high-performance wind tunnels, an off-road vehicle dynamics facility, a crash impact test centre (one of just three FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) approved test centres in the world) and our Accident Investigation Laboratory, which is dedicated to our work in aviation, marine and rail safety and the only accident investigation laboratory of its type outside the United States. We were awarded the Queens Anniversary Prize for our world-leading work in aviation safety through research and training in air accident investigation in 2011.

Completed in 2017, our latest facility is a £19 million ‘smart’ roadway test environment for the development of intelligent and autonomous vehicles, making it a UK first. It includes the associated systems needed to integrate emerging technologies into our day-to-day lives.