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National Transportation Safety Board

National Transportation Safety Board

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent U.S. Government agency responsible for investigation of accidents involving aviation, highway, marine, pipelines and railroads. They also watch over the military, and in case of accidents help them. It is charged by the U.S. Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States, as well as sensational accidents in other modes of transportation (such as the 1993 Big Bayou Canot train disaster near Mobile, Alabama). The agency is also in charge of investigating cases of hazardous waste releases that occur from modes of transportation. Mark Rosenker was appointed as Vice Chairman in 2003 and Acting Chairman in March 2005. He has held the position of the Chairman since August 2006. Robert Sumwalt is the vice chairman. The agency is based in Washington, D.C.


The Board was established as an independent organization in 1967 and took over the investigative functions of the Civil Aeronautics Board, among other duties. Originally established with strong ties to the U.S. Department of Transportation, these ties were later severed under the Independent Safety Board Act of 1975. The organization receives its authority from Chapter 11, Title 49 of the United States Code. It has investigated over 124,000 aviation incidents since its establishment.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Arkansas lawyer Jim Burnett to head the Board.


The board has five members appointed by the President for five year terms, one of whom is designated the chairman by the President and then approved by the Senate for a fixed 2-year term. Another member is designated as vice chairman and becomes acting chairman when there is no formal chairman.

No more than three of the five members can be from the same political party.

Organization within the Board is composed of separate sub-offices for highway safety, maritime safety, aviation safety, railroad, pipeline, and hazardous material investigations, research and engineering, recommendations and communications, academy and administrative law judges. These sub-offices report to the Office of Management and Budget.


The NTSB is normally the lead organization in the investigation of a transportation accident within its sphere. However, this power can be surrendered to other organizations if the Attorney General declares the case to be linked to an intentional criminal act. This occurred during the investigation of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when the Department of Justice took over the investigation.

An investigation of an incident within the United States typically starts with the creation of a "go team", composed of specialists in fields relating to the incident. This is followed by the designation of other organizations or corporations as parties to the investigation. The Board may then choose to hold public hearings on the issue. Finally, it will compose a final statement and may issue safety recommendations. The Board has no legal authority to implement, or impose, its recommendations, upon the causative entities. That burden falls upon regulators of the varying modalities, at either the federal or state level.

The NTSB may investigate incidents or accidents occurring outside the United States under certain circumstances. These may include:

  • accidents or incidents occurring to American-registered or American-owned aircraft (other than an aircraft operated by the Armed Forces or by an intelligence agency of the United States) in foreign airspace if the aircraft both departed and was scheduled to land in the United States. This has happened on rare occasion with respect to flights to and within Alaska that have crashed in Canada.
  • accidents or incidents occurring to American-registered or American-owned aircraft in countries without a transportation investigative board.

The NTSB, if asked, will also provide technical and other advice for a fee to transportation investigative boards in countries that do not have the equipment or specialized technicians available to undertake all aspects of a complex investigation.

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