The Real CSI: Inside the TSB Laboratory

ISSN 2369-873X

4 June 2014
Posted by: Leo Donati

Working for the TSB definitely comes with a load of questions from family and friends. Once you get past explaining what type of occurrences the TSB investigates, the subject of CSI and other crime shows inevitably comes up. Everyone wants to know what investigation scenes are really like.

Since the TSB will soon open its engineering lab to the public (as it does every two years), it seemed like an appropriate time to satisfy everyone’s curiosity by sharing some of the CSI-like information.

While accident sites are where the questions originate, the TSB lab is where the scientific work is carried out to find some of the answers. Were there any issues with the placement of the lights, or the angle of the rail crossing? What flight information was stored on the “black box”? Where did the fire start on the ship? Was the pipeline electronic monitoring system functioning properly? Whether they are mechanical, electrical, material, or structural deficiencies, the engineering lab is the place where the science of TSB investigations is completed.

Most people would walk in the lab expecting beakers and Bunsen burners, but instead, their view will be filled by part of a broken airplane cockpit. It’s so shattered that they would wonder how it’s even possible to find any clues in it at all. Well, I can assure you that under the rubble lies a wealth of information. Memory is in everything, and we spend a lot time extracting it. The memory in micro-chips can tell us a lot about an accident. In some cases, the micro-chips will be removed from their circuit boards and the data will be recovered.

Technology is very important to the investigation process. From radios to black boxes, some form of computerization finds its way into almost all systems under investigation. Testing these systems, contrary to popular belief, takes up a lot of time. And everything needs to be tested. Depending on the particular variables involved in an accident, determining what types of tests should be conducted, in what way, and under what conditions can be really complex. It’s an issue investigators grapple with at some point, and the information that comes out must be absolutely accurate. The lab deals only in precise measurements.

For example, currently sitting in the lab is an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB), a piece of equipment for airplanes designed to be detected acoustically under water. Most people would be surprised to learn that it needs to be in the water in order for us to activate and test it, otherwise, it doesn’t work at all.

Every room of the lab contains different types of equipment that may be used in an investigation. It’s difficult to say which machine is used the most, because all accidents are so different, requiring completely different forms of analysis. One investigation may benefit from testing the temperature of metals and chemical compounds for pre-existing cracks and fatigue, while another may benefit from thorough examination under a FTIR spectrometer, a machine used to determine the chemical components of an object.

When entering the high bay, which can seem like a huge garage, people would notice all the pieces of evidence stored all over the warehouse. It’s filled with new and old investigation parts, like a 1-tonne wheel from a derailed train and propellers from antique airplanes. It’s also quite possible to be startled by loud noises if there is an ongoing test in session. The investigators would be discussing factors such as the speed and impact, and methods of recording the data.

One of the smallest rooms of TSB’s laboratory facilities can be perceived as a museum of sorts, as its contents chronicle the evolution of the black box. There on display, are about a dozen different black boxes, all from various time periods from all around the world. Did you know that most of them are orange? Part of the reason for this colour is that it is easier to find in a crash site. Further into the room, a reel-to-reel machine sits adjacent to a recent high-tech computer. Most people would tend to think that the old machine is part of our antiques, but it’s actually used for investigations. Some companies still use older equipment so we have to maintain our capacity to download this information for those occurrences.

Even though TSB investigators and engineers have access to a great number of tools and equipment, the investigations can’t be compared to those portrayed on shows like CSI. I think people know that investigations take longer than an hour. But on CSI, they do things that we can’t. They move things around, like camera angles, to get a better view of something, but essentially, they’re making up data. We can’t just do that; we can only use existing evidence.

The TSB’s work is different from investigations on TV shows. Our real work helps prevent more accidents like those investigated from happening again.

Visit the lab!

If you are in town, come see for yourself! The TSB lab situated beside the Ottawa International Airport will open its doors to the public and offer guided tours on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

For more TSB lab photos, take a look at our Behind the scenes photo album.

Image of Leo Donati

Leo Donati was the TSB's Director of Operational Services, before retiring in 2017 with over 25 years of experience in the area of human factors and accident investigation. Prior to joining the TSB, he worked as a Bioscience Officer in the Canadian Forces. Leo is married and has two daughters. He enjoys walking, going to the gym, and traveling with his wife. He has a passion for cooking, family history and technology.

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