Fly Safe

An aviation investigator sets some ground rules

Name: Beverley Drake
Occupation: Senior Aviation Accident
Investigator/Analyst
Location: Washington, D.C.
Duties: Manages investigations and evaluates probable cause of aviation accidents
Salary: Investigator GS-9 at $43,000 to Regional Director GS-15 at $135,000
Power move: Broke into aviation by networking among professionals and being attentive at conferences

I often tell prospective applicants this is a gruesome job,” admits Beverley Drake. “I’ve told so many gory stories of death and destruction to my sons that they’ve avoided flying.” But Drake, who is the first and only black female senior aviation accident investigator/analyst, hopes her efforts will make the skies safer.

When an accident occurs, investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board analyze factual information to determine the probable cause, such as human error, mechanical failure, weather, and terrain influences.

Drake, who has investigated more than 300 aviation accidents, is also charged with managing crash site procedures, such as assigning tasks to Federal Aviation Administration reps and airplane and engine manufacturers; writing and evaluating final probable cause reports; and serving as a media liaison.

When a crash occurs, state police notify the FAA command center, which then contacts the NTSB, an independent federal agency with 10 regional offices and 43 investigators. “We have investigators on call, and we always have a bag packed,” says Drake, who keeps three packed bags: “one at home, one in my car, and another in my office.” Investigators are required to be at a crash site within two hours.

Most investigators are pilots, mechanical or airspace engineers (who specialize in electrical/hydraulic systems in airplanes), or former insurance adjusters for aircraft manufacturers. But according to Drake, a candidate with a bachelor of science degree and strong math background can enter the field and gain investigation experience as an intern. Drake says being personable, detail-driven, and diplomatic, as well as having solid interviewing and writing skills, are strong complementary attributes.

Drake was a biochemistry major with aspirations in medicine, but changed course, applying to a newspaper aviation ad and eventually becoming the first female military/commercial pilot in her native Guyana.

She migrated to New York in 1980 and, unable to secure a commercial piloting position in the states, Drake joined Goldman Sachs as an analyst. She networked diligently, however, with aviation professionals in organizations such as Negro Airmen International (www.blackwings.com) where she served as secretary, and Black Pilots of New York.

Inspired by a speech delivered to the latter organization by Dennis Jones, chief of General Aviation and Regional Operations at NTSB, Drake thought: “If I couldn’t fly for a living, I could do something to make flying safer.” She inquired about vacancies within the agency and applied in 1989. Two years later, Jones was offered a position as an investigator. Drake notes that NTSB often recruits investigators at conferences hosted by groups such as the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (www.obap.org) and Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (www.tuskegeeairmen.org).

Currently a candidate for a master’s in aeronautical science from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Drake intends to broaden the scope of her safety work to the global scale. “Some other places have a much higher crash rate.

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