UAA students get hands on experience investigating plane crashes

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 5:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - At the east end of Merrill Field, near the University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology Division maintenance hangar, there’s an old yellow plane in bits and pieces. Right now, it’s a classroom for aviation crash investigation students at the university.

It’s a course that UAA has been teaching for some time, said instructor Wade Weiss. Over the course of the semester, his class is figuring out what caused the plane to come down.

The plane didn’t actually crash there. However, Weiss said the plane did crash at one point. It was then donated to UAA for the class. This is the first time Weiss has taught the semester-long course, and it’s the first time the plane has been put outside for a realistic simulation of a plane crash.

“The idea is that the students come out, and they analyze the aircraft itself,” Weiss said. “Look for evidence of what happened and why and draw conclusions as to how the accident happened from there.”

The grade for the course comes in three parts, said Weiss. Students have to develop their own investigation checklist, use that checklist for the investigation, then do a group presentation on their findings at the end of the semester.

In class, students are given certain opportunities to look into the simulated crash, such as a chance to talk to the pilot who was given a story to tell the students, or checking maintenance logs or talking to the mechanic.

Weiss throws in some curve balls to make it more realistic — like making it a fact in the simulation that the pilot was inebriated during his interview, making the information less reliable.

Other variables add to the realism of the simulation during the course as well. Weiss said students do better based on the quality of their investigation rather than figuring out what happened to the wrecked plane in reality.

“I mention that there might or might not be some damage to the trees in the background, indicating that it might have come in a little bit low. And the landing gear and all the components that are actually squished, if you will — that’s a good indicator that it might have come in a little hard,” Weiss said. “So all that evidence is there for them to be able to analyze and we’ll see what they come up with.”

The students are mostly all going to school to become pilots or mechanics if they aren’t already. All of them see that if they are exposed to the events that lead to a plane crash, they can be better in those jobs.

Or maybe they’ll want to become crash investigators with National Transportation Safety Board because of the class. Although, Weiss said they won’t be able to land a job there by only passing the class.

“This does not qualify them to become an NTSB inspector by any means, but it does give them a pretty good framework of how and what they would be looking for if they were called upon to go help investigate an actual accident,” Weiss said.

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