Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University


There is a paucity of studies on the reliability of eyewitness reports to aviation crashes. We examine witness statements to a widely observed major airline accident to determine if reported accident investigator distrust of details in eyewitness reports is supported by empirical evidence. The extensive archival witness record (N > 300) of a wide-body airliner crash in clear daylight conditions is subjected to statistical analysis to test eyewitness reliability. Even with over 200 witnesses within a three square kilometre (1.6 square mile) area answering a binary observation question, the variance is sometimes high enough to preclude forming statistically significant conclusions about a basic large-scale event. There is no statistical difference between the distributions of witnesses that reported diametrically opposed observations; and no discernible geographic pattern, preferred orientation or optimum viewing distance. These results support the current reported practice of placing low value to eyewitness accounts of aircraft crashes.