What Are Public Aircraft Operations?

By Debbie Hersman

ImageToday, the NTSB began a two-day public forum on the oversight of public aircraft operations.

So, what is a public aircraft operation? It is surprisingly difficult to answer that simple question.  Herein lies part of the problem that was behind the idea to hold this forum. Public aircraft operations are defined by their mission, not the aircraft itself.  But that is confusing to many people inside and outside the government. Clarity of this concept is important because public aircraft missions are those carried out by or for a government body, whether it’s for a national or local purpose.

What kinds of missions are considered public? Missions like chasing criminals, counting endangered wildlife, searching for lost hikers, or monitoring our nation’s borders. You can take a look at some of those aircraft performing these missions in this short NTSB video: http://bit.ly/tfYxxa

Hundreds of these operations are performed each day…safely. Yet, when something goes wrong, the results can be deadly — and that is when the NTSB begins its work. From 2000 through the first eight months of this year, the NTSB has investigated about 350 public aircraft accidents resulting in 135 deaths.

Despite issuing more than 90 safety recommendations related to public aircraft operations, confusion remains regarding the roles and responsibilities for safety oversight.

As I said this morning, “eschew obfuscation” is a good theme for this forum.  Even the titles of some of the panels today drove home this point when we asked government agencies and industry associations first to define terms like “public aircraft” and “oversight.” Throughout the forum, we will ask them to drill down into the “gaps and cracks” of the current system.

When we investigate a public aircraft accident, we regularly hear conflicting perceptions about who is responsible for oversight.  In our business, accidents are often called mysteries that are solved by NTSB investigators. But, in the case of public aircraft operations it should never be a mystery about who is responsible for ensuring safety in the first place.

NTSB Investigates Wrong-Way Driver Accidents

By Don Karol

In 1968, a year after the NTSB was established, investigators responded to an accident near Baker, California. A driver with a minimum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 percent drove in the wrong direction on Interstate 15 and collided with a 39-passenger bus. The driver and 19 bus passengers were killed, and 11 others seriously injured.

Twenty years later, the NTSB responded to a similar tragedy in Carrollton, Kentucky. A driver with a BAC of 0.26 percent drove his pickup truck the wrong way on Interstate 71 and collided with a church activity bus. The bus driver and 26 passengers were killed and 34 others sustained minor to critical injuries. The Carrollton accident is the deadliest impaired driving accident in U.S. history.

Continue reading NTSB Investigates Wrong-Way Driver Accidents

Arrive Alive

By Deborah Hersman

World Day of RemembranceAcross the United States families and friends will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. According to AAA, about 38.2 million people, or 90 percent of holiday travelers, plan to drive this Thanksgiving. While we have experienced a decline in traffic fatalities in recent years, more than 30,000 people in the United States and nearly 1.3 million people across the globe perished on the roadways last year.

Today is World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. Started in 1993 by victim and nongovernmental organizations, this day commemorates those killed or injured in road crashes. In 2005, the United Nations issued a resolution designating the third Sunday in November for this remembrance and asked Member States and the international community to recognize this day. While we remember those that have perished, at the NTSB we recognize that too many unnecessary fatalities occur on our roads.

Please stay safe on roadways during the busy holiday travel days by minimizing your risks:

Avoid fatigued or drowsy driving: Stay alert behind the wheel by getting plenty of rest before you set out and plan and take breaks.

Don’t drink and drive: Alcohol degrades driving skills and slows reaction times, regardless of an individual’s tolerance. Separate your holiday drinking from your driving.

Keep your eyes on the road: Distracted driving is a major cause of traffic accidents. Just two seconds of distraction time doubles the chances of an accident, so pull over before you use your cell phone or text.

Slow Down: Allow plenty of space between you and the car in front of you and reduce your speed.

Buckle up: Seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent – please buckle up and make sure that those riding with you are properly restrained.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday.

Who Is Watching the Tracks?

By Deborah Hersman

Earlier this week, the NTSB met to consider the draft report on an accident at Miami International Airport (MIA). On November 28, 2008, a three-car people mover train operating along a fixed guideway failed to stop at the passenger platform and struck a wall at the end of the guideway. Six people were injured.

What happened? This accident occurred because the primary stopping mechanism failed and maintenance technicians had intentionally bypassed the secondary fail-safe system. Yet, as in so many accidents that the NTSB investigates other factors contributed to the accident. In this case, one key element was the absence of effective external oversight.

External safety oversight of public transportation systems is essential to identify and correct safety risks that may not be apparent or effectively addressed by the operator. External oversight at MIA could have detected that the maintenance company did not have formalized maintenance procedures, which allowed the trains to operate without a vital backup safety system.

Effective oversight becomes more critical as our transportation infrastructure ages. In the case of the Miami airport people mover, the train system was installed in 1980. Furthermore, the previous maintenance company expressed concerns that the trains were past their design life. We have seen the challenges of maintaining aging infrastructure in many of our investigations, including the June 2009 collision of two Washington Metro trains near the Fort Totten Station. With old and new infrastructure, we will always need proper maintenance and oversight to confirm that the system is performing to the highest safety standards.

For additional information on the NTSB investigation of the Miami crash, see the Board Meeting summary.

The Outstanding Contributions of Flight Simulation to Aviation Safety

By Deborah Hersman

This week, the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Flight Simulation Group is holding a conference on “The Contribution of Flight Simulation to Aviation Safety.” Gathered in London are some of the finest minds in flight simulation.

The NTSB’s interest in flight simulators dates back to the late 1960s with recommendations to perform engine-out training in flight simulators rather than airplanes. We are just as interested in their considerable safety benefits today, which is why I was pleased to have the privilege of speaking virtually to the conference.

I recognized the outstanding contributions of the attendees and challenged them to do even more with flight simulator technology to further improve aviation safety, including addressing loss-of-control accidents, such as the tragic Colgan Air crash in February 2009.

Be an Alert, Safe Driver . . . Driving Drowsy is Dangerous

By Mark Rosekind

Man asleep at the wheelAt the end of a drive, ever pull in to your destination but don’t remember how you got there? Every year, 1.9 million drivers have a fatigue-related crash or near miss. Drowsy driving can be as lethal as driving under the influence of alcohol, yet drivers continue to underestimate the risk or don’t take actions to drive safer. Fatigue is often identified by the NTSB as a cause of major accidents where lives were lost or people were seriously injured.

So what causes drowsy driving? Adults need about 8 hrs of sleep but most average less than 7 hrs; and getting even 2 hrs less sleep than you need can impair performance. Over time, when you lose sleep, it builds into a cumulative sleep debt and it could take a couple nights of sleep to zero out your debt. Our brains are programmed to have us awake and active during the day and asleep at night (circadian rhythms). So, when you are driving at night, in the early morning hours, your brain’s natural state is sleepy. Being awake too many hours, using sedating medications, sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea) and other factors can create fatigue and make you a drowsy driver.

How can you be a safer, more alert driver? First, learn the warning signs for drowsy driving. Before you drive, be sure you have sufficient sleep to be awake and alert. Plan for driving breaks, even if you don’t feel tired. Long drives and night time driving deserve extra planning to ensure your alertness. Short naps and caffeine can boost performance and alertness; learn about their effective and strategic use. Classic strategies to stay awake, such as rolling the window down, turning up the radio or having the interior lights on may help but only for 10 minutes. Learn more about drowsy driving and effective strategies. Driving drowsy is dangerous. Don’t underestimate it . . . take actions to always drive alert!


Member Mark RosekindMark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.