Helicopter crash investigator hopes to work himself out of a job
By Tom Risen|July/August 2017
Chihoon Shin, 32, aviation engineering investigator for helicopters, Office of Aviation Safety, National Transportation Safety Board
When an air crash involves a helicopter, aerospace engineer Chihoon “Chich” Shin inspects photos of the wreckage with his fellow experts and sometimes travels to the crash site to determine why the accident occurred. This investigative work is at the heart of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s mission of continually improving aviation safety.
How did you become an engineer?
I’ve always been enthralled with aviation and space. I always had a desire to understand how things work, which sometimes meant taking it apart without knowing how I’d put it back together. The field of aerospace engineering seemed like the right fit. After I completed high school, I attended Georgia Tech and received my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. After college, I worked at Naval Air Systems Command and was introduced to accident investigation within my first year there when I participated in an investigation of an H-60 helicopter mishap. The engineering side of the investigation was fascinating: trying to figure out what broke, understand why it broke, and develop solutions to problems identified during the investigation. In spring of 2012, an opportunity arose at the NTSB for a helicopter specialist in the aviation engineering division, and I’m grateful I was accepted and that I get to do work in this fascinating field full time. It’s not your typical aerospace engineering work; we’re not designing and manufacturing a product. My primary focus is determining whether airworthiness, design, or maintenance issues were factors in helicopter accidents and incidents. I support our investigators-in-charge by going to helicopter accident scenes, examining helicopter wreckage, and testing and disassembling suspect components. Helicopter accident investigations come with their own unique challenges, given the unique complexities that come with helicopters and the fact that a majority of helicopters lack cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders that are key in furthering our understanding of the circumstances that led up to the accident. As I am not specialized on one helicopter model or manufacturer, but rather on investigating accidents involving different helicopter models, I have an opportunity to learn something new on a regular basis. This facet also allows me to see a variety of design and engineering philosophies across different manufacturers in the helicopter industry, from large original equipment manufacturers to smaller shops designing and manufacturing add-on equipment for specialized helicopter missions.
How do you see aviation safety evolving by 2050?
Someone once told me that our aim is to work ourselves out of a job. When I was a child, it seemed like there was a large commercial airliner crash on a regular basis. Lessons were learned, safety systems evolved, and revolutionary approaches in preventing these tragedies have resulted in a remarkable decrease in commercial airliner accidents in today’s world. We haven’t seen the same rate of accident decrease in the smaller aircraft world. My hope is that by 2050, we’ll have better incorporation of safety enhancing technologies on all aircraft, such that there is parity in safety between a large air carrier and a small helicopter operator.
"I always had a desire to understand how things work, which sometimes meant taking it apart without knowing how I’d put it back together."Chihoon “Chich” Shin, aerospace engineer