Media Resources

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Covering The First Few Days of a Tra​​​nsportation Accident​

The following provides a brief overview to assist you in covering​ the first few days of a National Transportation Safety Board accident investigation. Please refer to the About the NTSB page of our web site for information on the history of the agency and the investigative process.

The NTSB’s Media Relations division may be reached at [email protected] — but first check Twitter @ntsb_newsroom​ for the latest updates and information on media briefings and crash investigations.​​

Under federal law, the NTSB is responsible for investigating and determining the probable cause of every civil aviation accident in the United States (and certain public use aircraft, such as those owned by state and municipal governments). The NTSB also investigates accidents in the other modes of transportation such as rail, highway, marine and pipeline.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency and is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Transportation or any of its modal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is automatically a party to all NTSB aviation investigations.

​​What is an Accident?

​​The NTSB investigates every civilian aviation accident in the U.S. and has the discretion to also investigate incidents.

An aviation accident is "an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage."

Note: In the absence of a death or serious injury, it may take several days to determine if an airplane has suffered “substantial damage” that would trigger an NTSB investigation.

An incident is "an occurrence other than an accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft, which affects or could affect the safety of operations."

The NTSB also investigates major crashes and accidents in other modes such as highway, marine, rail, pipeline and hazardous materials transportation.

Regional Airplane Accidents

Many of the more than 1,300 NTSB aviation accident investigations every year are conducted by the NTSB’s regional offices in Denver, Seattle and Northern Virginia.

If an NTSB investigator is dispatched to the crash scene, he or she may designate a time during the day, usually late afternoon, to meet with and brief the media.

In the absence of an on-scene press briefing, information may also be released by Media Relations in Washington.

Roughly two weeks after an accident, a preliminary report will be issued. The preliminary report will contain factual information collected on scene. It will not have a cause. 

Preliminary reports can be found in the CAROL investigative database​ roughly two weeks after the accident data. ​

The probable cause for the accident will be included in a final report, which could take one to two years to complete.

Please note:

  • The NTSB will not announce the cause of an accident while on scene. Indeed, the cause may not be determined for one to two years after the accident. 
  • The NTSB will not release the identities of victims or survivors of accidents. Such information may be released by local officials or the transportation company involved. The NTSB never provides the names of those involved in transportation accidents.
  • ​Registration or tail numbers will be provided in the preliminary report after it is verified with the wreckage.

Major Go-Team Accidents

At a major transportation accident, the NTSB will send one or several public affairs officers to accompany the Go-Team. Often, one of the five Presidentially-appointed board Members will accompany the team and serve as principal spokesperson. However, board members are not investigators. The Go-Team is led by a senior career investigator designated as Investigator-in-Charge, or IIC.

While the NTSB’s investigative team includes representatives from other agencies and organizations, only the NTSB may release factual information about the investigation. Representatives of other organizations participating in our investigation risk removal and exclusion from the process if they release investigative information without NTSB permission.

The NTSB will establish a command post near the crash site, often in a hotel. Although not possible in every circumstance, the agency strives to conduct a media briefing once a day on scene, during the mid- to late-afternoon. The timing and location of briefings will be announced on Twitter @ntsb_newsroom.

Media briefers will not analyze information provided, nor speculate as to the significance of any particular piece of information.

The NTSB will maintain a media relations presence on scene for as long as circumstances warrant, usually 2 to 5 days.

After that, information will be released from Media Relations in Washington, D.C. through Twitter @ntsb_newsroom and on

A Note About Recorders

In an aviation accident, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, known as the “black boxes,” are transported as quickly as possible to NTSB headquarters in Washington for readout. Photo opportunities of those recorders are sometimes arranged by Media Relations in Washington, but any factual information relating to those recorders usually will be released by the investigative team at the accident site.

Note: The NTSB is prohibited by law from releasing the audio from the cockpit voice recorder. The NTSB provides only a written transcript. Do not confuse CVR audio with publicly available air-traffic-control recordings.


Since 1996, the NTSB has been charged by law with coordinating the resources of the federal government to support the airlines and local and state authorities in meeting the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families. 

The family affairs division, the Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance​, offer these services for other commercial modes of transportation as well.

The NTSB makes every effort to protect the privacy of the family members. Access to the NTSB’s Family Assistance Center is strictly limited. The NTSB will, usually within the first 24 hours of establishing the assistance center, hold a media briefing with other organizations assisting the NTSB to describe the family program and the assistance being provided to the families.

Memorial services held near the scene of the accident, and crash site visits for family members, are private.

FBI presence

The FBI and other federal agencies often assist the NTSB on scene, collecting evidence, taking photographs and mapping and measuring the wreckage field, serving as a force-multiplier for the NTSB go-team. FBI presence on-scene does not necessarily mean there is a criminal investigation underway.

After the On-Scene Investigation

Even after the team has left the accident scene, the fact-gathering phase of the investigation continues. During this phase, a public hearing may be held. Factual reports will then be issued, which become the basis for the analysis to come.

The final report of accident investigations, containing the NTSB’s decision as to the probable cause and the reasons for the agency’s conclusions, is adopted by the five-member board, sometimes in a public meeting held in Washington. While urgent safety recommendations may be issued at any time during an investigation, most recommendations will be included in the final report.