By Leah Read
This is the seventh blog in a new series of posts about the NTSB’s general aviation investigative process. This series, written by NTSB staff, explores how medical, mechanical, and general safety issues are examined in our investigations.
“Turning a blind eye, makes nothing disappear.” Anonymous
When air safety investigators arrive at the scene of a fatal aircraft accident, we meet with law enforcement officers, witnesses, friends of the pilot, and family. During these critical interviews, we start to get a bigger picture of the circumstances surrounding the accident and those involved. It’s very common to hear almost immediately that the pilot was very “conscientious,” “thorough,” and an “excellent pilot.”
But there are also times when no one seems to be saying anything much at all about the pilot…until we dig deeper. That’s when we hear things such as, “The pilot never maintained his airplane right.” or “Everybody knew he was going to crash eventually.”
There are also times when the investigator will get a call via our communications center that a witness must talk to someone “right away.” The witness then tells us that the pilot had a LONG history of “maverick-like” behavior, was known to “buzz” a friend’s house, or used illegal drugs—as just some examples. In these situations, we will ask the witness if they had talked to the pilot about this behavior or contacted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They sometimes tell us, “I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. He was too prideful.”
But more often, they tell us that they didn’t say anything to the pilot or FAA. Sometimes, the pilot was a friend whom they didn’t want to embarrass or cause any trouble. Personally, as a fellow pilot, I can understand the concerns.
But what if you see something, and don’t step up and say something? The reality is that nonreporting can put people at risk.
Many don’t realize that there are actions the FAA can take if risky pilot behavior is reported. The FAA has established a hotline for confidential and anonymous reporting. As noted on the FAA website, “The FAA Hotline accepts reports concerning the safety of the National Airspace System, violation of a Federal Aviation Regulation (Title 14 CFR), aviation safety issues…. The FAA Hotline provides a single venue for…the aviation community and the public to file their reports.”
As one FAA inspector told me, “We can’t investigate what we don’t know.” If a complaint was made via the FAA Hotline, the FAA would be obligated to investigate. Remember, you may not only save the life of another pilot but also an innocent passenger or bystander.
The NTSB, unfortunately, has seen the tragic consequences of turning a blind eye to a known hazard. I have seen accidents that have occurred in someone’s front yard, skimmed the roof of an apartment building, or crashed near a school. If the airplane had impacted just a few yards in either direction, the damage and loss of life could have been so much worse. This was the case in an accident I investigated where the pilot lost control of the airplane, crashing into a front yard just feet from an occupied house. Thankfully, there was no fire, and no kids were playing in that front yard.
Within moments of arriving on scene and being debriefed by law enforcement, I was handed a witness statement. Very quickly, I realized the witness was quite credible—and what he had to say about the pilot was alarming. The pilot had a known history of reckless behavior. Further investigation revealed that people knew of the pilot’s behavior but didn’t want to report him for several of the reasons I mentioned above. Not surprisingly, the FAA had no negative history on the pilot. He had a clean record and was never on their radar.
Sadly, in this accident, the pilot and his innocent passenger died. But what if he had other passengers onboard? What would have happened if he had crashed into the house, or, worse, a crowd?
A colleague of mine investigated an accident where a pilot was flying an airplane he was not rated to fly, in instrument conditions without holding an instrument rating. The pilot had recorded numerous notes in his logbook that provided compelling evidence of his own unsafe flying, by his own admission. The pilot noted landing on a major highway and flying low over a crowd during parades. He was also known for unsafe low-level flights over airshows and having a general disregard for proper communication procedures. Yet nothing was done about his behavior; people turned a blind eye to it. Tragically, the pilot and three occupants died in the accident when the airplane encountered instrument meteorological conditions and impacted terrain.
In the big scheme of things, we need to ask ourselves, who are we really protecting by keeping quiet? As active pilots, mechanics, airport personnel, friends, and family members, you are the eyes and ears to what’s going on out there. You know your airport and the people who use it. You know when your friend or family member seems risky or unsafe. If you identify a hazard, then speak up. Or, file a report with the FAA Hotline. Just remember, we all share the same airspace or may be nearby if their plane crashes.
Stay safe and don’t turn a blind eye!
For more information on submitting a report of a risky pilot via the FAA Hotline, visit: https://hotline.faa.gov/
Leah Read is a senior air safety investigator in the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.