Some people are born for aviation, like William Jeffrey Edwards, known as ‘Jeff’. Jeff lived out the ‘Top Gun’ dream based on an aircraft carrier, flying the Grumman A-6 Intruder (below) as navigator. Pictured above is Jeff (centre) with President George H. W. Bush taken aboard the USS Forrestal, around 1989/90.
Jeff has also faced horrific scenes of destruction that go beyond the realms of worst nightmares through his critical work as an air accident investigator. How did Jeff jump from a boy with a love for flying, to Navy attack aircraft navigator, to principal air accident investigator, currently for Avsafe? Jeff explains.
When did you know you wanted to become a pilot?
I grew up surrounded by stories of flying from my great-uncle who became a civilian pilot and flew an open cockpit bi-plane in his business after he returned from World War I. My father also had an all-round love for aviation. We lived close to a couple of small airports, including Cincinnati-Blue Ash Airport, Ohio, and my dad and I would visit regularly to marvel at the various flying machines.
Our neighbour, Bud Merrill, was a hugely inspirational figure during my early years. He was a naval aviator at the Battle of Midway in 1942, and was the nicest, most humble gentleman you could ever wish to meet.
Then, when I was nine years old I was sick for some time. To help pass the time and fire up my imagination, my dad gave me a book called Sky Attack, written by Canfield Cook. Based in World War II the story has the iconic Spitfire at its centre. My interest in flying was fuelled more and more with the turn of each page. That book sparked a deep interest in aviation and led me to become an avid reader of aviation magazines, later becoming an aviation writer myself.
I was particularly interested in the ‘near-miss’ features in Flying magazine. What had caused the event to occur? What did the pilots learn? Maybe this was an early sign of how my future career would develop.
The moment of total clarity came at the age of 13 when a friend of my dad’s took me up in his light aircraft. He let me handle the controls and it was at that exact moment that I knew I wanted to become a pilot.
What was your route into flying?
As I approached my 16th Birthday my dad offered to pay for flying lessons until I flew solo, at which point the buck stopped with me. So, I got a job sweeping floors and washing cars to continue paying for lessons.
The Cessna 150 was my flying classroom until I became a qualified private pilot when I turned 17, at which point I went to college to study Political Science, and undertook reserve officer training affiliated with the Navy. Completing my academic education in 1976, I was immediately commissioned into the Navy.
During my midshipman years I was exposed to all branches of the Navy: destroyers, submarines, Marine Corps and yes, aviation. This was the experience of every Navy midshipman (officers in training) – a chance to try out possible career routes before completing a ‘dream sheet’ stating our preferred area of interest.
Of course, I wanted to fly! So I applied for aviation and was sent to the cradle of Naval Aviation, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida in early 1977 to learn to be a naval flight officer.
After earning my wings of gold in 1978 I was ordered to further training in the Grumman A-6 Intruder, at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, part of the world’s largest Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. When I completed A-6 training I joined my first squadron – Attack Squadron 34 – aboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean operating in support of NATO.
From 1978 to 1982, I was a bombardier/ navigator on the Grumman A-6 Intruder, an American twinjet – a two man carrier based all-weather attack aircraft. Flying in the A-6 Intruder from an aircraft career was the best feeling imaginable.
What made you transition to aircraft accident investigation?
As time passed, I became more involved in the safe operation of aircraft on the carrier. All squadrons within the Navy must have an aviation safety officer who advises the commanding officer on matters relating to safety. Unsurprisingly most people on an aircraft carrier want to fly as much as possible, but safety always plays a role in that decision to fly. It’s essential to have someone who ensures everyone takes a moment to think before springing into action, and that person was me for Attack Squadron 176, assigned to the super carrier, USS Forrestal.
While still in the Navy I studied aviation safety at the Naval Post Graduate School before transferring to the Navy Safety Centre in Norfolk, Virginia. There I became a full-time aircraft accident investigator and our office of five investigators investigated approximately 50 aircraft accidents each year. These accident investigations took me around the world, from the jungles of Malaysia, ice covered Antarctica and hot, arid Somalia.
I retired from the Navy in 1994 and continued participating in aircraft accident investigations, this time in the civilian world for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing.
How do you deal with working at the scene of an air accident?
I have assisted in hundreds upon hundreds of air accidents, mostly military and general aviation, but I have also investigated on a number of commercial air disasters, including ValuJet flight 592, operated by a McDonnell Douglas DC-9.
On May 11, 1996 the flight departed from Miami International Airport bound for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Ten minutes after take-off the aircraft crashed in the Everglades as a result of a fire in the cargo hold caused by incorrectly stored cargo. All 110 people on board died.
The boggy and alligator infested wetlands of the Everglades made this investigation particularly challenging. When you’re picking up body parts you have to find a way to cope, and for me that means enlisting ‘gallows humour’ (grim and ironic humour in a desperate or hopeless situation). If you don’t keep your sense of humour, dealing with such horrifying situations will eat you alive.
But you never forget – particularly the images. And every single loss of life is a true tragedy.
Of course, on a personal level, air accident investigation is toughest when friends are involved. I have experienced this first hand, watching one of my closest friends crash in an F/A-18 while conducting a test flight in advance of the Farnborough Air Show. You never get over something like that. I recall that event every anniversary of his accident.
How have developments in technology influenced the way air accidents are investigated?
An important part of investigating and reconstructing any air crash or incident is collecting as much data as possible. Everyone has heard of the black box, but now almost every passenger carries a high-tech data device – their mobile phone. Flight deck technology has evolved at a rapid pace too, enabling the storage of colossal amounts of data. Therefore, acquiring as many devices from the crash scene as possible that might store data is a critical stage in every air accident investigation. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of recorded data can be accessed. In general aviation, where the same pilot might have been flying the same aircraft over an extensive period, data provides deep insight into the pilot’s flying habits and behaviours. This can be extremely helpful when piecing together the human factors involved in the incident.
Have you identified any trends in the leading cause of air accidents?
Tragically, loss of aircraft control when close to the ground continues to be a leading cause. The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, a joint government and industry group which I have been a part of since 2011 has researched accident causes and made many recommendations to reduce the fatal accident rate. We have seen much progress since we began ten years ago. However, this kind of safety work will never end as long as mankind flies aircraft.
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a pilot or work in air safety?
Do your homework. There are many facets to aviation from becoming a pilot (corporate, military, airline, jet, helicopter, piston) to serving in aviation safety as a company or government investigator, risk management, insurance, or general aviation management. Do your research well, then explore the avenue that most appeals to you.
What do you think makes a good pilot?
Good risk management skills, without a shadow of a doubt. If you do not know what can hurt you and how to manage that risk you may not survive long in aviation. None of us has enough time or luck to make every mistake in aviation. Learn from others.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The opportunity to meet so many great people and visit different parts of the world. Aviation is a combination of travel and people, so if you like both, you will love aviation!
What has been the finest moment of your career to date?
Serving in the United States Navy and getting the opportunity to be a bombardier/navigator in the A-6 Intruder community. The comraderie in a squadron is unsurpassed. Your life depended on them and theirs on you. These fellow aviators are friends for life.
And what a life it was! Living and working aboard an aircraft carrier and taking off and landing on one, too!
Quick turnaround questions
Take-off or landing?
I always had a big smile on my face as a child when the aircraft rotated for take-off and I knew we were in the air. It was magic!
Dream airport as a pilot?
Any aircraft carrier!
Favourite place for a holiday?
Flying across the United States from coast to coast. In 1991, my wife and I took our two girls (about nine years old) in our light aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, on a three-week trip across the U.S and visited many national parks. What an experience to share our great country and its wonderful sights with them and to see much of it from the air.
Favourite aircraft of all-time?
Of course, the Grumman A-6 Intruder!
What would you be/do if you had to choose another career?
I would be a full-time aviation author. I have had many articles published in a variety of publications, but it is a small part of what I do. It is rewarding to share my experiences, especially the safety lessons I have learned from aircraft accident investigations so that other aviators can be safer pilots.
The best thing about flying is…
Meeting other people from around the world who share a mutual passion for flight.
Thank you, Jeff, for sharing moments and insights from your fascinating career in aviation. You hold a lot of wisdom that is invaluable to the entire aviation community, particularly your continued efforts to make the skies a safer place, advising safety boards including the General Aviation Safety Committee, and the Lancair Owners.