Aircraft crash lab training next crop of accident investigators

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PRESCOTT, AZ -- Plane rides can sometimes end in tragedy, and it's up to investigators to figure out what went wrong. Some of the best that are called to look into those accidents come from right here in Arizona.

Jonathan Lowe took a look at a crash lab that is helping make travel safer.

It was six years ago Thursday that Captain "Sully" Sullenberger turned the busy Hudson River into a runway.

Back in 2009, U.S. Airways flight 1549 left Laguardia Airport and hit some geese, which took out both engines. Amazingly, all 155 people on board survived and only had minor injuries.

Most often, plane crashes don't end up like that, and it takes a team of investigators and analysts to figure out what went wrong. Some of the best that are called to investigate those accidents come from right here in Arizona.

It's the only thing worse than pictures of wreckage: video of distraught family members desperate to know what happened to their loved ones' plane.

"It motivates us more to make sure that doesn't happen in the future," freshman Emilio Navarrete said.

Located at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott campus, there's a college study lab you've probably never seen the likes of. CBS 5 News got a rare tour of the Robertson Aviation Safety center. Pictures don't do its extensive detail justice.

"One of the things that we try to teach the students is you gotta find the four corners of the airplane," said William Waldock, the crash lab's director. "We're the most complete because we go to the full extent of re-constructing everything including the foliage and the fire."

Aspiring crash investigators have unfettered access to real crashes that have been relocated to the campus. Waldock is not only the lab's director, but he's also a professor at Embry Riddle and decades-long aircraft crash expert.

"I actually did 103 interviews on MH370," Waldock added.

There are three crashed helicopters and six planes on the eight-acre plot of land. Not only is the crash lab unique, it replicates each and every detail of the actual crash site.

"Well we start usually with the NTSB report," Waldock explained. "Hopefully they got some good scene pictures and in a couple of cases I worked on some these [crashes]."

Only Waldock knows the true story behind what brought them down. He changes details to challenge his students

"I was in the Marine Corps and my background was helicopters so I just fell in love with aviation," said Eleazar Nepomuceno, a graduate student and the crash lab's supervisor.

It's the job of students like Nepomuceno and Emilio Navarrete to make sense of all the broken, burned, bent pieces of metal.

"It's interesting to know that there was human lives attached to this and it just makes our job as accident investigators and advocates of aviation that much more important," Navarrete said.

They admitted putting the puzzle together can be daunting.

"When I first walked into the scene it was very disheartening because I did not know where to start," Nepomuceno said. "There's pieces everywhere."

But through what they learn about the crash, "we can promote safer aircraft, safe pilots, and that was something I was really fascinated with," Nepomuceno added.