According to the NTSB, most aviation accidents are caused by pilot error. But aviation lawyers know that as many as half the cases that the NSTB says were the result of "pilot error" simply weren’t.
The NTSB does its best to get an accident’s probable cause right. The trouble is that, in almost every one of its cases, the NTSB turns to the manufacturer of the aircraft for help in figuring out what happened. In other words, the NSTB asks one of the entities who may have caused the crash for help investigating it. The NTSB calls this method of investigation the "party system." It presents an unavoidable conflict of interest. It’s like asking the fox for help in figuring out what happened to the chickens.
More often than not, the "party system" results in the pilot taking the blame, even when the accident may really have been the manufacturer’s fault. I’ve seen this happen dozens of times. I’ve written about it here and here and here.
NTSB investigators don’t disagree. Well, at least one doesn’t. From an anonymous email:
[W]e rarely, if ever, can exclude the manufacturers’ representatives from access to every part and detail of an investigation. We (NTSB investigators) are open and forthright with these people. Unfortunately, such a candid exchange is rarely a two-way communication…And the process gets pretty cloudy when we send the wreckage, or part, to that manufacturer for teardown and examination. Sure, we’re there ‘in-charge’ of the process…but that’s just a formality.
But isn’t the NTSB watching everything that the manufacturer is doing?
NTSB investigators ‘observing’ may be more like a dog watching television when it comes to the latest technology that is known only by those experts who made it in the first place. And it’s even worse if an FAA Inspector stands in for the NTSB investigator. Then our ‘eyes’ may be almost an in-house friend of the manufacturer…
Predictable Probable Cause Findings
So, what do you expect as a result? ‘Nothing wrong with our engine! (or accessory) (or special part)’…and that’s what goes down in the report…That’s the simple reason that ‘statistics’ cite 80% pilot error…This high rate is simply not accurate, it’s far more often a system failure… but the NTSB cannot buck industry when we have to use the ‘party system.’