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Problems with aircraft accident investigations being addressed

Dear Editor,

The past year and a half has certainly been active with aircraft accidents impacting the sovereign waters of The Bahamas.

The most recent of such accidents in Bahamian waters involved an AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter which impacted waters off Abaco island on July 4. Tragically, there were no survivors, one of whom was billionaire Chris Cline.

As advised in the wake of the November 8 crash in 2018 involving Captain Byron Ferguson, a strengthening of The Bahamas’ aircraft accident investigation regime was critical for The Bahamas given its archipelagic nature, positioning in terms of international travel routes and bathymetry (underwater topography).

Officials from the Bahamas Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) have attributed the timely recovery of all victims along with the helicopter to lessons learned from the most recent handling of the November 8 crash.

However, the timely recovery of both wreckage and victims is nothing short of remarkable. It has been widely reported that search efforts in this most recent crash began some 12 hours after the helicopter is suspected to have made impact with Bahamian waters. Given this extensive passage of time, AAID investigators and members of the family of the deceased are fortunate that search and rescue assets responding to this crash were not required to contend with the same underwater topography as at the site of the November 8 crash.

Since last November when Ferguson’s Piper Aztec went down in waters northwest of New Providence, the government of The Bahamas has demonstrably taken heed. In June 2019, it tabled the Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority Bill, 2019 (Byron’s Law) in the House of Assembly. As promised by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis in the wake of the November 8 crash, Byron’s Law is designed to revamp and revise The Bahamas’ aircraft accident investigation regime. It is truly commendable that this administration has been able to bring Byron’s Law to Parliament so swiftly and before the first anniversary of the tragic incident.

A review of this new bill reveals that, in the main, it checks all the boxes, i.e., satisfactorily addresses the concerns raised in the wake of the November 8 crash.

Byron’s Law, among other things, proposes the creation of an aircraft accident investigation authority which is set to be autonomous and directed by a four-member board.

Further, it makes provision for the recommendations proffered and specifically addresses the areas of adequate funding for investigation efforts, clarifies the authority of entities at crash sites and entrenches the duty of preservation of any wreckage.

Although the government has brought this piece of legislation to Parliament swiftly, the July 4 crash demonstrates that it is certainly no time for it to rest on its laurels.

It remains incumbent upon this administration to pass Byron’s Law into force in the shortest possible time. While any legislative and budgetary improvements arising out of the November 8 crash will no doubt assist responses and families in the future, it must be remembered that such improvements have no retroactive effect for the complexities left behind from the November 8 crash for the investigators and family members alike.

Although the circumstances in both the November 8 and July 4 crash are not identical, perhaps a general contrasting of the outcome of both events along with the tabling of Byron’s Law, provide sufficient evidence for the position that the problems with aircraft accident investigations in The Bahamas are being addressed.

Moreover, improvements in national responses to aircraft accidents involving impact with Bahamian waters augurs well, and is also a step in the right direction towards The Bahamas’ gradual move to independent management of its sovereign airspace, as it demonstrates capacity, or at least the beginning stages thereof.

– Keith O. Major Jr., LL.M., aviation attorney

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