By Debbie Hersman
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.