When it Comes to Safety, Not All Flights are Created Equal

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Last week, we officially adopted our final report on the tragic May 15, 2017, crash of a Learjet 35A on a circling approach to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The crash took the lives of the two occupants—the aircraft’s pilots. The probable cause of the accident was the pilot‑in‑command’s (PIC’s) attempt to salvage an unstabilized visual approach, which resulted in an aerodynamic stall at low altitude.

The accident airplane’s operator offered on-demand flights under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. (The air carriers that most people are more familiar with, which fly regularly scheduled routes, are regulated under Part 121.) The accident flight was a positioning flight subject to Part 91 rules; however, the procedures that the operator used, the pilots’ training, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) ongoing oversight duties all pertained to Part 135 aviation.

Imagine knowing that some of what was happening on this accident flight was going on in your regularly scheduled air carrier flight. First, the PIC was not flying the airplane until just before the accident, when the second-in-command (SIC) relinquished control, despite the fact that, by the company’s own standard operating procedures (SOPs), the SIC was not experienced enough to be flying. This was only one of many instances during the flight of an SOP violation or the failure to use required SOPs.

Additionally, during initial training, the PIC and the SIC both had difficulty flying circling approaches in a simulator. This Part 135 carrier, however, did not have a program in place to follow up with pilots who had exhibited issues during training. What’s more, despite both pilots’ training problems flying a circling approach, they were teamed together for this flight.

This accident flight was also an example of poor crew resource management (CRM). CRM done well results in SOP adherence and effective communication and workload management. However, during this flight, the captain had to extensively coach the SIC while also fulfilling his pilot monitoring responsibilities. He did neither well. Both pilots lacked situational awareness.

Contributing to the accident was the PIC’s decision to allow an unapproved SIC to act as pilot flying, and the PIC’s inadequate and incomplete preflight planning. Also contributing to the accident was the carrier’s lack of any safety programs that could identify and correct patterns of poor performance and procedural noncompliance, and the FAA’s ineffective safety assurance system procedures, which failed to identify the company’s oversight deficiencies.

In response to this accident, among other things, we recommended that the FAA require Part 135 operators to establish programs to address and correct performance deficiencies, as well as to publish clear guidance for Part 135 operators to create and implement effective CRM training.

This accident illustrates that Part 135 flight crew members don’t always follow the same procedures or exhibit the same discipline as professionals in Part 121 operations. Before the accident at Teterboro, we found that pilot performance either caused or was a major contributing factor in seven major aviation accidents involving Part 135 on‑demand operators between 2000 and 2015. A total of 53 people were killed and 4 were seriously injured in these accidents. This year, we added “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations” to our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements to help draw attention to this problem.

MWL06s_Part135

Many air carriers operating under Part 121 are required to continually seek and identify risks, and once the risk assessment is done, put measures in place to mitigate those risks through safety management systems (SMSs). Conversely, while some Part 135 operators have implemented SMS, most have not.  In response to the Teterboro accident, we reiterated a previous recommendation to the FAA to require that all Part 135 carriers in the United States have an SMS in place.  In Part 121 training, performance deficiencies are required to be followed up on; there’s no such requirement for Part 135 operators to monitor deficiencies in their pilots’ training.

Further, although Part 135 operators, like their Part 121 counterparts, are required to provide CRM training, they receive less thorough guidance on what constitutes effective CRM training. This shortcoming was evident in the Teterboro accident, where the crew did not display good CRM during the accident flight.

I’ve had two very interesting roles in life – being an airline pilot and serving as an NTSB Board Member. While serving as an airline pilot, I was also a member of a flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) team. In that role, I looked at minor procedural deviations in nonaccident flights with the purpose of learning where potential problems were. In this accident, we reiterated previous recommendations to the FAA to require flight data monitoring (FDM) programs to accomplish the same kind of oversight for Part 135 aviation, and that Part 135 operators install the necessary equipment to acquire FDM data.

In my role as an NTSB Board member, I have seen too many cases where accidents occur in part due to procedural noncompliance and lack of professionalism. A pilot might be born with certain aptitudes, but no one is a born professional; it takes work and constant discipline. Professionalism is a mindset that includes hallmarks such as precise checklist use, callouts, and compliance with SOPs and regulations. Those traits were conspicuously absent on this accident flight. And, now as my role as a frequent airline passenger, I’m glad that airlines are required to have SMS programs; I know they make my flights safer.

The NTSB believes that tools such as an effective SMS should be required and used in Part 135 aviation as well as by Part 121 carriers. We hope that including “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations” on our Most Wanted List for 2019–2020 will encourage action on this issue.

 

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