By Keith major jr, llm
The past 18 months has certainly been active for aircraft accidents within the sovereign waters of The Bahamas. The most recent tragedy occurred one week ago involving an AugustaWestland AW139 helicopter, which crashed while flying from Abaco to Florida. Unfortunately there were no survivors, with billionaire Chris Cline confirmed among the fatalities.
As advised in the wake of the November 8, 2018, crash involving Captain Byron Ferguson, a strengthening of The Bahamas’ air accident investigation regime was critical given this nation’s archipelagic nature, location on major international aviation routes and bathymetry (underwater topography).
Officials from the Bahamas Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) have attributed the timely recovery of all victims in the latest tragedy, along with the helicopter itself, to lessons learned from the most recent handling of the November 8 crash.
The timely recovery of both wreckage and victims is nothing short of remarkable, since it has been widely reported that search efforts in this most recent crash began some 12 hours after the helicopter was suspected to have gone down in Bahamian waters. Given this extensive passage of time, AAID investigators and members of the families of the deceased are fortunate that search and rescue assets responding to this crash were not required to cope with the same underwater topography as at the site of the November 8 crash.
Since last November, when Captain Ferguson’s Piper Aztec went down in waters north-west of New Providence, the government has quickly taken heed. In June 2019, it tabled the Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority Bill 2019 (Byron’s Law) in the House of Assembly. As promised by the Prime Minister in the wake of the November 8 crash, Byron’s Law is designed to revamp and revise The Bahamas’ aircraft accident investigation regime. It is truly commendable that this administration has been able to bring Byron’s Law to Parliament so swiftly and before the anniversary of the tragic incident.
A review of this new Bill reveals that, in the main, it checks all the boxes. It satisfactorily addresses the concerns raised in the wake of the November 8 crash. Byron’s Law proposes the creation of an aircraft accident investigation authority that is set to be autonomous and directed by a four member board. Further, it makes provision for the recommendations generated, and specifically addresses the areas of adequate funding for investigation efforts, clarifies the authority of entities at crash sites, and entrenches the duty of preservation of any wreckage.
Although the government has brought this piece of legislation to Parliament swiftly, the July 4 crash demonstrates this is no time for it to rest on its laurels. It remains incumbent upon this administration to pass Byron’s Law into force in the shortest possible time. While any legislative and budgetary improvements arising out of the November 8 crash will no doubt assist responses and families in the future, it must be remembered that such improvements have no retroactive effect for the complexities left behind from the November 8 crash for the investigators and family members alike.
Although the circumstances surrounding both the November 8 and July 4 accidents are not identical, perhaps a general contrasting of the outcomes in both events, along with the tabling of Byron’s Law, provides sufficient evidence for the position that the problems with aircraft accident investigations in The Bahamas are being addressed.
Improvements in the national response to aircraft accidents in Bahamian waters augur well, and are a step in the right direction towards The Bahamas’ gradual move to independent management of its sovereign airspace, as it demonstrates capacity or at least the beginning stages thereof.