Tips for aviation accident research

Let’s be honest: Finding information on a civil aviation accident is no small feat. In the federal government, organizational changes involving aviation accident management and the evolution of records classification are making the researcher’s task even harder.

But seek and, generally, ye shall find! So let’s look at how to go about researching an aviation accident effectively.

First, you need to have certain basic information on the accident you’re researching:

  • Aircraft model
  • Accident date and location
  • Aircraft registration number
  • Aircraft type (civilian or military)

This will make things easier, because the finding aids related to aviation accidents are put together based on that basic information.

You must then determine where the records you are looking for might be located, i.e., select the right record group. The following reference table will help guide your first steps:

Years of Responsibility Department Record Group Number
1923–1936 Department of National Defence

Civil Aviation Branch

RG24 / R112
1936–1984 Department of Transport
Air Services Branch (1936-1970)
Canadian Air Transportation Administration (1970-1985)
RG12 / R184
1984–1989 Canadian Aviation Safety Board R13086
1990–present Transportation Safety Board RG156 / R1009

Each record group is divided into series and sub-series. For each of those subdivisions, you will need to consult a finding aid to determine whether a file exists pertaining to your research topic. It is a painstaking process, but some aids are available online (for example, the accession “Aviation Accident Reports 1919-1977“—RG12), which narrows down the research that needs to be done at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

Here are some things to take into consideration:

  • Two types of records pertain to accidents: the accident report and the occurrence investigation. They are not always filed in the same location, so you’ll have to check the entire record group to find them.
  • In the 1920s and 1930s, National Defence had the mandate to investigate accidents. Even if your research is on a civilian aircraft, consult RG24.
  • Your file could be located in the Central Registry (records originally stored in Ottawa) or in the regional registries (stored in the regions: Maritimes, Pacific, etc.).
  • Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection has gaps: we do not have all records pertaining to aviation accidents. Sometimes, a file simply does not exist.
  • Some records are still at the accession stage. They have been transferred to LAC but have not yet been processed by an archivist. If the description in our database contains a note to that effect, consult the links under the heading “Accession” (see “Scope and Content” in connection with the note “Please consult the related accessions”).

For example, here is a screenshot associated with the series Central Registry Files from the Transportation Safety Board fonds:

Screenshot showing that the files have indeed been acquired, but not yet processed.

List of accessions from Central Registry Files (RG156)

Each record group has its own challenges but the basic concepts explained here will help you to conduct your research effectively.

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