TSB@25: Contributing to safer air transportation — 31 years of challenges and personal satisfaction

ISSN 2369-873X

27 March 2015
Posted by: Don Enns

It was 1982 when I first heard about accident investigation. I had just started a new job twisting wrenches on Transport Canada (TC) airplanes, and when I showed up to Hanger 7 at the Edmonton Municipal Airport with my tool box in hand, one of the older aircraft maintenance engineers met me at the door. His first words to me were, “The place you want to be is Accident Investigation.” I kept my mouth shut but couldn’t help wondering, “Who are you? And what is Accident Investigation?” Well, he was proved right two years later when I became an aircraft accident investigator for the Department of Transport Aircraft Accident Investigation in TC’s Western Region.

January 29, 1984, is when I got my first call to attend an accident site. The call came in at about 1:00 am, waking me out of a deep sleep. There had been a fatal Cessna 180 accident, and I was to meet investigators Tony Allinson and Don Abbot down at the Federal Building at 6:30 am with all my gear. I reset my alarm figuring that I had about 4 hours to get a whole night’s sleep. But the excitement and the anticipation had sent a giant surge of adrenaline through my system and of all the things I might have been able to do, sleep was not one of them.

The accident was pretty traumatic for a first time investigator; 31 years later the memory of the site and the smells are still fresh in my mind. But I didn’t get much time to dwell on it though because I was out in the field 27 more times that year.

Photo 1. A84W0004 C-180
accident south of
Innisfail, Alberta
A84W0004 C-180 accident south of Innisfail, Alberta

On March 22, 1984, I had my first introduction to a major investigation when Pacific Western Airlines had an engine blow up on departure from Calgary. There were no fatalities but the ensuing fire destroyed the aircraft.

We became the Canadian Aviation Safety Board in the Fall of 1984, though it really didn’t make much difference to me. I was still traveling all over Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon, investigating accidents and writing reports. Writing being the operative word. Back in the “good old days,” it really was pen and paper. The written pages were handed to Jennifer Olsen (now Lefebvre), who typed them into a 3X3X4 ft box called a word processor. At the time it was state of the art, the latest in modern technology; today you might find it in a museum.

Photo 2. A84W0017
Pacific Western Airlines
at Calgary, Alberta
A84W0017 Pacific Western Airlines at Calgary, Alberta

In September of 1985, I was promoted to Superintendent of Technical Investigation in the Ontario region. That was a big step. With less than two years’ experience, I was now in charge of three other technical investigators.

In Toronto, we became one of the first computerized offices with IBM XT computers equipped with Window 3.0 and Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS. We even upgraded our 9 pin dot matrix printer with a 27 pin printer. Not that it improved the investigations, but it started to change the way we wrote reports.

Then, in 1990, we became the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board. Prior to 1982, it had always been me that was changing jobs and employers. Now that I had found the perfect job, it was the employer that was changing. I had stayed constant as an accident investigator, but Transport Canada Accident Investigation became the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, which then became the Transportation Safety Board of Canada– today’s multi-modal TSB.

One highlight of my career was in the Fall of 1998 when I was asked to join the Swiss Air 111 Investigation team. I became part of the fire group, and I took on the responsibility for reconstruction of the aircraft. Swissair 111 was the biggest jigsaw puzzle that I have ever tried to put together, and this puzzle was complicated by simultaneously missing and extraneous pieces. It became very rewarding to positively identify some individual item as either being part of the aircraft, or not, and then being able to put it into a reconstruction and show how the fire progressed.

Photo 3. A98H0003
Swissair MD11 near
Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
A98H0003 Swissair MD11 near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia

Part of the investigation involved several burn tests at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Technical Center in Atlantic City. The last test which was designed as a worst case scenario was intended to find out if burning mylar insulation could really create the amount of damage we saw in the aircraft. The good news – mylar insulation burns; the bad news – I destroyed the FAA burn test equipment, and have never been invited back.

The job has evolved a bit over time. The photographs which were originally slides, became prints, and are now all digital images. We now use more powerful computers that can incorporate recorded radar tracks, satellite imagery, and flight data recorder information to produce 3D animations. But the basic task of collecting data and analyzing it is still the same. I still start the day with some sort of plan about what I want to accomplish, and that plan still flies out the window when the phone rings. It is still thrilling when I get the call, but after 31 years, it takes a lot more to get the adrenaline pumping. I guess I’m a little crusty by now, but do I love seeing the newest generation of young, keen investigators who are raring to go.

This job and my career have provided me with many challenges. But the rewards are great too; the personal satisfaction of knowing that I have done a good job and made Canadian aviation just a little bit safer is not something I ever felt before. And there is the concurrent personal interest because I like to travel and I am not at all hesitant to ride on any Canadian air carrier or Canadian-made aircraft.

Got to go, I hear the phone ringing and that means I might not be home for dinner tonight.

Image of Don Enns

Don Enns has been an Air Safety Investigator for the TSB since 1984. He has been involved in many major investigations, the two most notable being the 1998 Swissair accident near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, and the 2005 Air France accident at Toronto. He is currently the regional manager of Air Investigations at the Toronto regional office.

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