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The Sherlock Holmes of aircraft probes

Mr Chan Wing Keong became the first Asian to be awarded the Jerome F. Lederer Award, which is presented by the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, this year. Mr Chan has been in aviation safety for more than three decades, setting up t
Mr Chan Wing Keong became the first Asian to be awarded the Jerome F. Lederer Award, which is presented by the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, this year. Mr Chan has been in aviation safety for more than three decades, setting up the Air Accident Investigation Bureau of Singapore in October 2002.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Veteran air accident investigator is still living his dream of working in aviation

Mr Chan Wing Keong is most at home sitting among airplane parts like the jagged edge of a wing, black boxes and an underwater locator.

The 64-year-old has been in aviation safety for more than three decades, setting up the Air Accident Investigation Bureau of Singapore in October 2002, an independent investigation body under the Ministry of Transport. In August last year, the bureau was restructured to become the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau to include marine safety investigation.

For his work in promoting aviation safety in Singapore and the region, Mr Chan became the first Asian to be awarded the Jerome F. Lederer Award, which is presented by the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, this year.

For about 15 years, he has been the "Sherlock Holmes" of airplane investigations, piecing together evidence in plane accidents to find out what happened.

"An accident is defined as the events that occur from when people board an aircraft, to the time they disembark," he said. "Anything untoward that leads to fatality, serious injury or serious damage to the plane, counts as an accident."

He also looks at incidents, which are events that could potentially become accidents, such as a clipped aircraft wing.

"It is important to investigate every single case so we can learn from it," Mr Chan told The Straits Times. "It's not about assigning blame, but it is about looking at the safety measures so we can make recommendations on how to prevent such incidents from occurring."

NO SMALL MATTER

No small matter is too small. Incidents can be precursors to accidents. We cannot ignore an issue or it will just snowball.

MR CHAN

He said "safety is a system" and not about a single individual.

"We must see it in a wider, organisational context. Airplane investigations used to focus on the pilot, but in the last 20 years or so, people have learnt to look at the bigger picture," he added.

Mr Chan said it was vital to have an independent body to investigate airplane incidents, separate from the regulatory organisation, in this case, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). "The perspective is that when the regulation unit also conducts investigation, it might not be completely objective," he said.

Mr Chan, who studied aeronautical engineering at university, worked in CAAS' Airworthiness and Flight Operations Department before 2002. Through his hard work, the investigation bureau has gone from having just two people in 2002 to 17 today.

One of his first assignments was at Changi Airport in December 2002, barely 21/2 months after he started the unit.

"The night before, there was a collision between an aircraft and maintenance vehicle," he recalled.

"I had planned to visit the site at a similar time to see the lighting conditions and wetness of the ground, as it was during a rainy period. But about 6pm, I received a call about a plane over-running the runway, and I asked if they were joking."

With two incidents in less than 22 hours, Mr Chan got down to work.

The team would usually visit the site of the incident, securing it and taking photographs, just as security personnel would at a crime scene.

Then they would take all the evidence gathered to the lab, where investigators analyse things bit by bit. This could involve taking apart the engine and most importantly, finding the black box and listening to the recordings from the cockpit.

"It is just like detective work," Mr Chan said with a smile. "From all the evidence, we form a hypothesis of what happened and then we prove it. For instance, it could be that the pilot had issues, in which case we would look at his background such as his drinking habits. If it was an engine problem, we would look at the history of such engines and other issues they might have."

Listening to the black box cockpit recordings is done in a room accorded the highest level of privacy protection. "Imagine hearing the last words of a pilot," Mr Chan said.

One of the big cases that put the investigative team under the spotlight was that of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, which crashed into the Java Sea on Dec 28, 2014, killing all 155 passengers and seven crew members on board. Singapore offered to assist, and sent a team of four out to find the black boxes.

The team had to sail in dinghies through bad weather to find the two black boxes, which they finally retrieved by Jan 13, 2015, using hydrographic equipment that can detect the items underwater.

One member of the team then was Mr Ng Junsheng, a senior air safety investigator in the bureau.

"We were out there, very far away, but we knew we had support back home," said the 36-year-old.

Mr Chan was coordinating all the information back in Singapore, including keeping the team's families in the loop. He also had to see if more equipment was needed or if the team needed backup.

Singapore has not had major aircraft accidents on its soil, but Mr Chan hopes that overall aviation safety internationally could be improved.

"Even small cases are worth investigating," he said. "No small matter is too small. Incidents can be precursors to accidents. We cannot ignore an issue or it will just snowball."

For Mr Chan, he is living the dream of working in aviation. In his office at Changi Airport overlooking the runway, he watches airplanes take off and land. "I just look out at the aircraft and hope nothing happens," he said with a laugh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'The Sherlock Holmes of aircraft probes'. Print Edition | Subscribe