Listen to Chihoon Shin discuss his work:
On March 11, 2018, a helicopter on a sunset aerial tour of Manhattan lost power, plummeted into the East River and capsized, resulting in the death of all five passengers.
Chihoon Shin, 35, a highly regarded helicopter crash investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board, arrived at the scene soon after the accident. Sorting through evidence and witness statements, he helped discover that a passenger’s safety harness accidentally caught on and activated the floor-mounted engine fuel shutoff lever. This resulted in the loss of power to the engine and the helicopter’s floatation system, which failed to inflate fully and keep the helicopter from capsizing once it hit the water.
Shin’s job in the crash’s aftermath was not only to assess what went wrong but also, just as importantly, to determine what could be done to prevent other similar crashes in the future. As a result of Shin’s assessment, the NTSB, in January 2020, made several recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, including improvements in the design of helicopters’ inflatable flotation systems.
This is one of numerous helicopter crashes handled by the aerospace engineer, who has had a profound impact on improving helicopter safety.
“Chihoon Shin has championed efforts to identify safety deficiencies and conceptualize effective corrective actions that have resulted in important safety recommendations for helicopter operators, manufacturers and regulators,” said Carolyn Deforge, an NTSB supervisory aerospace engineer. “He has done so many investigations that he is literally the person that people around the world reach out to when they have a helicopter question.”
Shin earned an aerospace engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and, before joining the NTSB in 2012, worked for the Navy as a helicopter transmission systems engineer, which included participating helicopter mishap investigations. He said working for the government gives him great satisfaction because he has the freedom to follow the facts wherever they lead and provide a full accounting of the likely causes of helicopter accidents and ways to avoid them in the future.
“I see my role as getting helicopter manufacturers and operators to understand we’re not attacking them or their product,” Shin said. “My job is to recommend changes to improve safety and prevent accidents from happening again.”
In the helicopter and aviation-safety universe, Shin, who goes by the nickname “Chich,” soon gained a reputation as a singular individual with a unique combination of engineering knowledge, an ability to communicate complex ideas in plain language and a disarming, low-key personality that helps him solve problems even in stressful settings where manufacturers, operators and regulators often have different priorities.
“As soon as you mention his name, it instantaneously removes any questions about the reliability of the information,” said Dana Schulze, director of the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.
When asked to describe how he gets results, Shin said, “my approach is to keep a level head and keep it very fact-based, especially with investigations where we might be scrutinizing an operator or product, and emotions can run high.”
Shin has traveled to investigate crashes, sometimes on short notice, throughout the continental United States, in South America and, once, to an Alaskan crash site where he had to go by a dog sled attached to a snowmobile. His work has informed flight safety and helicopter manufacturing worldwide, making him sought after for presentations in countries that have included Latvia, South Africa and Nigeria.
“I think he has his fingerprint on almost every fatal helicopter accident investigation we do at the agency,” Schulze said.
Shin’s big-picture results are what Schultze and others especially admire. As a direct result of Shin’s work, the FAA issued a directive in February 2020 for the inspection of flotation cables on certain Airbus helicopters to ensure pilots can deploy the floats without hindrance. This order stemmed from Shin’s work on the East River crash in New York City.
His work also led Congress to require that new helicopters be built with crash-resistant fuel systems. This requirement grew out of his investigation in 2015 of a medical-emergency helicopter crash in Frisco, Colorado, that killed the pilot and injured two nurses.
Shin was among those noting that a loophole in a FAA regulation allowed some helicopters to be manufactured using old design standards for fuel system crash resistance, resulting in fuel tanks that could rupture and lead to a post-crash fire. His work on the Frisco crash as well as on an early 2018 fatal helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon, among others, made him champion a design change.
The real work, though, occurred behind the scenes. Shin said his approach is to “create a space for people to be able to talk freely. We’re not looking for blame or pointing fingers at anyone. We’re just trying to understand what happens, so we can get as many facts as possible.”
Chris Lowenstein, senior manager of fleet safety at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company that makes helicopters, has seen this in action. “While we don’t always necessarily agree, we’ve always been able to achieve a consensus opinion and be effective in making corrective actions that make the fleet safer,” he said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”