The Facts about Bizav Safety
It’s no wonder you don’t hear much negative talk about business aviation safety: there’s not much bad news to discuss. The safety record for private, charter and fractional business jets has long been by far the best of all of general aviation, which includes personal, training, sightseeing, utility and owner-flown turbine and non-turbine aircraft.
Only the major airlines have a better long-term record. One reason is that they fly on regular schedules to the same destinations, so their pilots follow the same or similar routing, use the same airports and know what instructions to expect from air traffic controllers. Also, U.S. carriers operate under the most stringent federal aviation regulations. They must adhere to pilot duty-time limits and employ drug and alcohol testing, cockpit resource management, safety management systems and standard operations procedures.
Different, less stringent rules apply to business aircraft operations. These rules are designed to allow private, fractional and air-taxi pilots more flexibility than airlines in flight planning, selecting destinations, scheduling and the conduct of flights. However, business aviation’s less stringent rules raise the risk bar slightly, especially on flights involving unfamiliar routing, isolated destinations and long segments over remote areas. These places often involve challenging air traffic control procedures, heavily accented controllers, unique operating requirements and demanding airport environments.
Let’s address a few questions that might be on your mind:
Which aircraft types and models have the fewest accidents?
Jets have fewer accidents than turboprops, which have fewer mishaps than piston-engine aircraft. This is primarily due to the higher reliability of turbine engines and the level of turbine airplane system redundancy. Also, required training and flight checks for jet pilots are more arduous than for other aircraft types. Comparing the safety experience of various aircraft models isn’t easy because you have to consider how long each has been in production, how many were manufactured, how many have had mishaps and how many flight hours each has logged. When you crunch these numbers, no business jet model stands out as fundamentally safer than others.
What’s the most common kind of business aircraft accident?
By far, it’s runway excursions—when an aircraft goes off the end or sides of a runway during landing or an aborted takeoff. These occurrences account for more than a third of business jet and turboprop accidents and incidents. Generally these mishaps result in minor aircraft damage and no injuries, though a few excursions each year typically cause serious or fatal injuries.
Does having only one pilot compromise safety?
This isn’t an issue for most business jet travelers, as they typically fly with two pilots, even if the aircraft is eligible for single-pilot approval. [See Exit column on eliminating copilots in April/May 2015 BJT.—Ed.] Under private operations, several light-jet models may be flown by one pilot, but that airman undergoes the same training and annual checks as two-pilot crews. A recent study of accidents by BJT sister publication Aviation International News showed a slight advantage with having two pilots compared with one. Although no investigators could say with certainty that the presence of a copilot would have prevented a mishap, that appeared likely in some cases, according to the AIN study.
What do investigators blame for business aircraft accidents?
The National Transportation Safety Board, the independent government agency that investigates U.S. aviation accidents, has named the flight crew as the “probable cause” or a “contributing factor” in the majority of mishaps. The NTSB has attributed other accidents and incidents to mechanic errors, collision with animals or birds, air traffic control errors, lack of certain ATC or onboard equipment, misfueling, wet or icy runways, inflight icing, severe turbulence and catastrophic failure of a critical onboard system.
Do business aircraft carry “black boxes?”
The so-called “black boxes” are a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder. Most business jets carry the latter and others carry both types, depending on the size of the aircraft and the rules under which they operate. The NTSB, which can recommend but not enact regulations, would like all turbine business aircraft to be equipped with both voice and video recorders.
What safety regulations apply to bizav?
There are three primary regulations, each with a different level of stringency. Part 91, the least restrictive, applies to all non-commercial business aircraft operations. Part 91K, containing more severe limitations, applies when a business aircraft is being flown for a fractional owner onboard. And Part 135 is the commercial certification applicable to air taxis and on-demand charters.
Don’t some flight departments voluntarily operate under the stricter rules covering airlines?
Yes. The safety-oriented culture of flight departments prompts many to operate under the Part 121 regulations that airlines follow. In addition to establishing a safety-management system, keeping an updated SOP manual and practicing cockpit resource management, Part 121 sets strict guidelines for pilot flight time and rest periods, as well as more frequent pilot flight checks and physicals. These regulations also mandate use of a dispatcher—a person who must clear flights before they commence. Furthermore, airline regulations contain the most demanding requirements for fuel reserves, flight training, the selection of primary and alternate airports and the conduct of approaches, landings and takeoffs during inclement weather.
What safety measures or regulations have been introduced in the past few years or are planned for the next few?
The FAA is always working on new and revised rules to improve safety, and the aviation industry is continuously monitoring itself to incorporate safety improvements. In the last few years, certain types of accidents have decreased because of two measures: the ground proximity warning system and cockpit resource management. The former helps immensely to curtail controlled flight into terrain accidents, while the latter greatly enhances interaction and collaboration between pilots and their recognition of safety cues in and out of the cockpit. Now underway is a multibillion-dollar FAA/industry program that in the next five years will result in a sea change in the equipment and methodology used for aircraft navigation and pilot-air traffic controller communication.
Gordon Gilbert is a former news editor of BJT sister publication Aviation International News and a recipient of the National Business Aviation Association’s Platinum Wing journalism award.