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.

3 thoughts on “What Are Public Aircraft Operations?”

  1. “When we investigate a public aircraft accident, we regularly hear conflicting perceptions about who is responsible for oversight. ”

    Interesting Debbie, this statement implies that you have already decided that oversight is required. Shouldn’t you be asking whether oversight is warranted? Shouldn’t you be collecting data that would indicate that oversight would have helped prevent the public aircraft operations mishaps you highlighted in your opening remarks?

    Please tell us who provides oversight for FAA aircraft operations, both public and civil. Shouldn’t you be benchmarking aircraft operators who safely operate without oversight?

    Do you really believe that oversight = safety?

  2. This was an excellent forum. The subject of public aircraft oversight was long overdue and I applaud the Chair and the Board for taking it on and shining a light on the “gaps” in oversight. I offer the following comments/observations for Board consideration:
    1. The Board should publically acknowledge (as ICAO has) the importance of the IS-BAO Industry Standard. This will do two things:
    a. Send a strong signal to the public aircraft operators to embrace a known, recognized standard
    b. Fill the “gap” of “no known standard” that the FAA and operators acknowledge exists today

    2. The FAA has for many years used designated flight, maintenance and engineering examiners. Why not suggest that an IS-BAO auditor may also be “designated” by the FAA to conduct audits of public aircraft operators? That would “close the gap” and accomplish two things:
    a. Use the limited FAA human resources for oversight of Auditors
    b. FAA may then focus oversight on operators NOT IS-BAO registered

    3. Put into place a standardized “carding” system for flight crew, maintenance and aircraft. This would accomplish:
    a. Understanding across the public aircraft operators
    b. Clarity for auditors to confirm “who does what” in the operation

    4. During the conference we heard mention of data collection and reporting into a “SAFECOM” system. It was not clear to me that those data are shared across all the operators. If everyone reported into the NASA ASRS system (already established, up and running) then all operators could benefit from those data

  3. To be posted on the NTSB Web-site “What are Public Aircraft Operations” Comments page:

    The Los Angeles County Fire Department was proud to be included in a very distinguished group of governmental agencies to speak about our agency and it’s mission and our thoughts regarding internal and external oversight of our program.

    We hold ourselves to the highest possible standard because “safety” is our mission. Without high safety standards in our Air Operations Program we would have been unable to successfully accomplish that mission for the past 53 years.

    We do not believe that because our mission (as well as those others who operate Public Use programs) does not fall under a Part 135 operation that it has no official oversight and feel that this misinformation was dispelled by the presentations made over the 2 day forum.

    Discussed during our presentation was the fact we are one of the few agencies that operates 2 different types of aircraft, one that has been issued an Air Worthiness Certificate, and one that does not fall into that category. The 3 Sikorsky S-70’s that we purchased new (non-FEPP) in the early 2000’s, are maintained according to the same US military standard that has been used for this aircraft over the past 35 years. This maintenance program has allowed one of the best safety records during that time period when compared with the mission and the high number of hours flown.

    One important example of how we embrace external oversight and seek assistance to insure that we are following the industry best practices is with our EMS mission. Because we are a government agency and therefore do not charge for our services, we do not fall under Part 135. However, we reached out to the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Services (CAMTS), and requested an audit of our program. CAMTS now audits our program every 2 years. We realize that we can never receive accreditation since we are not a Part 135 operation, but we still want to insure an outside review of our EMS operations so that potential issues are identified by an independent entity.
    Additionally we reach out to the FAA through our local FSDO on a regular basis to work with us regarding both our certificated and non-certificated aircraft, even though they have no official oversight on non-certificated aircraft. Again we attempt to seek input from outside entities as a review and validation of our operation.

    We also seek this same oversight with our personnel. We annually send not only our pilots, but our mechanic staff to Flight Safety training at a total cost of over $500,000; the pilots for full motion simulator training, our mechanics to classes so they remain current with the best practices in the industry.

    We are currently using the industry standard to initiate our Safety Management System (SMS) program. We are open to sharing /assisting our cooperators and adjoining agencies with the implementation of their programs as well.

    We believe HAI President Matt Zuccaro summed up the position of all Public Use agencies best when he stated that we should bring all involved parties to the table, along with the NTSB, and come up with a policy that best suits all of our missions and operations for understanding, classification, and accreditation.
    Steve Martin, Chief of Air Operations, County of Los Angeles Fire Department

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