Category Archives: Aviation Safety

National Aviation Day

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Sunday, August 19 is National Aviation Day. It’s a day to celebrate more than a century of innovation and progress in aviation, certainly, but August 19 is also the birthday of a bicycle-maker—albeit one more famous for his contributions to aviation.

National Aviation Day.jpgAugust 19 was chosen to be National Aviation Day in honor of Orville Wright’s birthday while Wright was still alive to enjoy the honor. (Wilbur Wright had passed away in 1912, less than a decade after their landmark flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.) There’s a lesson in how the Wright brothers came to play their pivotal role in the story of aviation, and it’s especially worth mentioning on this day.

Wilbur was an early adopter of what was called the “ordinary” bicycle—a contraption with a high front wheel and a seat many feet off the ground. There had been earlier bicycles without the high wheel, but also without gears; the high wheel was necessary to get better performance out of limited muscle power.

The “safety bicycle” added gears, enabling good performance without using a high front wheel. It had two advantages: a center of gravity that was lower and rear of the front axle, and a shorter distance for the rider to fall. The popularity of pedaling exploded, and the Wright brothers saw a niche. From their shop in Dayton, Ohio, they began repairing, then renting, selling, and manufacturing bicycles—and, of course, tinkering with improvements.

Meanwhile, both were drawn to news of attempts at powered flight. Unlike other aviation pioneers, however, Wilbur and Orville insisted on three-axis control, using wing warping (deforming the shape of the wing) to control roll. Some competitors didn’t believe that a pilot could respond quickly enough to mechanically control all the required surfaces, but Orville and Wilbur had tested their concepts thoroughly (another advantage over some competitors). Through glider testing, they learned that an airplane could be controlled on all three axes and, in the bicycle trade, the Wright brothers had learned firsthand how innovation and safety could go hand-in-hand, providing control even when a platform seemed unstable.

It is an understatement to say that aircraft design has continued to evolve. Wing warping to control roll has given way to ailerons (precursors to amazing potential new technology reminiscent of the Wright brothers’ approach). The elevator has migrated from the front of the airplane to the rear. Wood has given way to aircraft aluminum and composites. Sticks and pulleys have given way to fly-by-wire and automation. But the Wright brothers’ insistence on three-axis control remains a foundational principle in modern powered flight, whether in the airlines or in general aviation. Because Orville and Wilbur Wright dared to believe in full control of all three axes, an industry was born.

Today, certification rules have changed to make it easier than ever to install innovative technology to maintain control of an aircraft. Angle-of-attack indicators and envelope protection are available not only in airliners, but for general aviation craft, as well. However, loss of control in flight continues to be the leading cause of fatal general aviation crashes.

NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements 2017-2018
Prevent loss of control in flight in general aviation

Why not celebrate National Aviation Day by reading up on current and innovative training and technology solutions that could eliminate loss of control in flight? You may find yourself surprised by how far aviation has come since the Wright brothers, and by how far there remains to go.

NTSB Supports ‘Safe Skies for Africa’ Program

By Dennis Jones, NTSB Managing Director

Last week, as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Safe Skies for Africa program, I led a team of NTSB investigators and communications specialists to South Africa to share lessons we’ve learned from our accident investigations. The Safe Skies for Africa program, created 20 years ago, aims to improve the safety and security of aviation on the continent. Our team shared some NTSB strategies with our international counterparts to help them achieve similar outcomes in their region.

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Managing Director, Dennis Jones, talks with attendees at the Safe Skies Symposium in Johannesburg, SA

From my perspective, the Safe Skies program is working. After spending about 20 years in Africa participating in accident investigations, conducting workshops, helping improve accident investigation programs, and training investigators, I’ve seen increased commercial air service between the United States and Africa (for example, there are now US commercial flights to Africa, which wasn’t the case earlier in my career), improved investigation quality, and a reduced rate of accidents involving commercial aircraft.

On this trip, the NTSB team shared a variety of lessons learned from different disciplines. Dennis Hogenson, Western Pacific Region Deputy Regional Chief for Aviation Safety, pointed out that, like Africa, the United States is seeing a high incidence of general aviation (GA) crashes. He told his audience that, while airline accidents have become rare, GA accidents account for most aviation fatalities in the United States. We investigate about 1,500 GA accidents each year; those involving loss of control in flight still result in more than 100 fatalities annually. In many of our GA accident investigations, we’ve discovered that pilots didn’t have the adequate knowledge, skills, or recurrent training to fly safely, particularly in questionable weather conditions, and their inability to appropriately recover from stalls often resulted in deadly accidents. Dennis encouraged his African counterparts to initiate more training and increase awareness of technology, such as angle-of-attack indicators, that can help prevent these tragedies.

Bill Bramble, a human factors investigator, outlined our investigation process and explained how we examine all factors—machine, human, and environment—to understand an accident and make recommendations to prevent it from happening again. Bill highlighted several accidents we investigated in which human factors played a role. But even when a probable cause statement focuses on factors not normally associated with human performance, it’s impossible to totally remove humans from the accident chain.

“Humans designed it, built it, operated it, maintained it, managed it, and regulated it. Human factors are always involved in complex system failures,” Bramble said.

To prevent accidents and improve the safety of air travel in Africa, it’s important that operating aircraft are airworthy, meaning that all structure, systems, and engines are intact and maintained in accordance with the regulations. To emphasize this point, NTSB aerospace engineer, Clint Crookshanks presented a series of case studies discussing airworthiness issues and offered guidance on ways to classify damage to aircraft.

Chihoon “Chich” Shin, an NTSB aerospace engineer, addressed helicopter safety. The number of helicopter operations (emergency medical services, tourist, and law enforcement support) in Africa is increasing, and so is the number of helicopter accidents. Chich presented case studies and highlighted some important safety issues from an engineering perspective.

“The metal doesn’t lie,” Shin said. He called for increased awareness of the safety issues affecting helicopter safety and encouraged action from key stakeholders, such as regulatory agencies and helicopter manufacturers and operators, to help reduce accidents and fatalities. He also touted the importance of crash-resistant recording devices to help investigators determine what happened in a crash and work to prevent it from happening again.

NTSB communications staff emphasized another side of our work in transportation safety. Stephanie Matonek, a transportation disaster assistance specialist, discussed the importance of planning for family assistance after an accident occurs.

“Having a family assistance plan in place, identifying your family assistance partners, and addressing the fundamental concerns for families and survivors that cross all cultures is not only a crucial step but the right thing to do,” she said.

Nicholas Worrell, Chief of the Office of Safety Advocacy, addressed messaging, encouraging attendees to go beyond investigations to teach their safety lessons effectively. He encouraged investigators to raise awareness of the safety issues they uncover to spur action on their recommendations.

Aviation is a global business. Our mission is to make transportation safer the world over by conducting independent accident investigations and advocating for safety improvements. With outreach activities like the one we just completed in Africa, we hope to make aviation safer, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. After all, transportation safety is a global challenge. When safety wins, we all win.

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NTSB Managing Director and staff with symposium attendees

3D Modeling: A Valuable Investigative Tool

By Michael Bauer

On February 10, 2018, an air tour helicopter descended into a canyon wash and collided with terrain while on approach to land at Quartermaster landing zone in the Grand Canyon near Peach Springs, Arizona. As part of this ongoing investigation, NTSB engineers needed a three-dimensional (3D) digital model of the accident site and surrounding terrain to thoroughly understand the terrain features in the local area. Although the main effort involved the use of a FARO laser scanner to create the 3D model, the NTSB small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) team recognized an opportunity to exercise our sUAS imagery-collection capabilities using photogrammetry and sUAS in a challenging environment to support this investigation and allow for a comparison of the data gathered from the two techniques for future investigations.

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Excerpt from Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart (FAA)

Since 2016, the NTSB has used sUASs, or drones, to create orthomosaic maps of wreckage sites and provide 3D digital models of terrain and vehicles for use by investigators in all transportation modes. Recently, we’ve launched the drone team to rail accidents (including the Hyndman, Pennsylvania, and Alexandria, Virginia derailments) highway crashes (including the Amtrak grade crossing collision with a refuse truck in Crozet, Virginia), and aviation accidents (including the crash of a cargo airplane in Charleston, West Virginia; the rejected takeoff and runway excursion at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan; and multiple general aviation accidents at sites across the country). None of these missions, however, presented terrain challenges like those in the Grand Canyon.

Because the Grand Canyon is a combination of National Park Service and tribal lands, planning for the mission started weeks in advance. We needed to obtain permission from various tribal and governmental entities to operate a drone within that airspace and the special flight rules area (SFRA). The area is heavily used by numerous helicopter tour operators in the region, so planning involved coordinating with and notifying the various local operators of our intended sUAS mission. Without the support of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Hualapai Nation, the National Park Service, and Papillion Helicopters, this mission wouldn’t have left the ground.

After we received the appropriate approvals, we assembled in Boulder City, Nevada, to load a helicopter for the short trip into the canyon. Unlike other sUAS missions I’ve conducted, the remoteness of the canyon location introduced many challenges. For example, at the site, there were no electrical outlets or a generator, so we needed to plan the mission carefully in advance to ensure that it could be completed within the flight time enabled by the available batteries—recharging was not an option. Also, cellular coverage (including wifi) was nonexistent; thus, we had to access the Internet for the ground station software before departing for the canyon. In addition, when we use the sUAS to map an accident site, we use ground control points (GCPs) that we typically mark with paint. However, out of respect for the sacred land of the Hualapai Nation where the operation took place, we instead used lightweight, removable targets as GCPs. In total, I took 65 pounds of gear into the canyon to support the sUAS operation.

 

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We conducted the sUAS flight early in the morning in light wind conditions suitable for drone flying and low temperatures, which was welcome compared to the triple-digit temperatures expected later in the day. We conducted our flights concurrent with the laser‑scanning effort in the canyon wash. As remote pilot in command (RPIC), I arranged for our helicopter pilot to work with me as the visual observer (VO) for the mission. The VO monitored the local traffic frequency for inbound and outbound traffic and relayed information back to me. During a few flights, I paused the mission to land the drone to ensure safe separation from tour helicopters. We accomplished the mission in just over an hour of sUAS flying time, which included a 12-minute, 10-acre mapping mission. The effort provided a detailed 3D model of the canyon wash for the engineers and stunning visual imagery of the local terrain area. The data are currently being analyzed by investigative staff.

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NTSB sUAS flying in the Grand Canyon

Through this investigation and others, we’ve found that the ability to create 3D models of accident scenes is a valuable tool in the investigator’s tool box. Moreover, the ability of the sUAS to provide the imagery needed for these models in unique, complex environments in a short time and with low acquisition cost will aid our investigators for years to come. The NTSB sUAS team continues to explore the possibilities of sUAS imagery collection within the envelope of safe drone operations to further understand the capabilities and limitations of the technologies as they relate to the agency’s mission.

Michael Bauer is an aerospace engineering investigator in the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.

Part 135 Flight Data Monitoring: The Best Way to Ensure Pilots Fly Safely

By John DeLisi, Director, Office of Aviation Safety

 

On November 10, 2015, a Hawker 700A operating as a Part 135 charter flight crashed on approach to Akron Fulton International Airport in Akron, Ohio. The crash killed 9 people. During our investigation, we learned that the first officer was flying the airplane, although it was company practice for the captain to fly charter flights. We also discovered that the crew did not complete the approach briefing or make the many callouts required during approach. Additionally, the flight crew did not configure the airplane properly, the approach was unstabilized, and the flight descended below the minimum descent altitude without the runway in sight.

Akron, Ohio
NTSB investigators at the scene of the crash of a Hawker 125-700 into an apartment building in Akron, Ohio

How could this happen? Wasn’t the flight crew trained to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs)? (Yes, they were.) Didn’t they know when to lower the flaps? (Yes, they did.) Yet, weren’t they flying the airplane contrary to the way they were trained? (Yes, they were.)

The crew ignored, forgot, or improvised their company’s SOPs and the airplane’s flight manual information. Even more disconcerting was that, upon our review of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), it appeared that this type of haphazard approach was fairly routine for them. How could that be?

The NTSB investigators discovered that no one at the company was monitoring—or had ever monitored—the way this crew flew the airplane. Because the airplane was not equipped with a flight data recorder, a quick access recorder, or any type of data monitoring device, the operator had no insight into what was happening inside the cockpit or how this crew was flying its airplane. The fact was that this crew was able to fly an airplane carrying passengers in an unsafe, noncompliant manner, which ultimately led to tragic consequences. If the operator had better insight into the behavior of its flight crew and had taken the appropriate actions, this accident may have been prevented.

That is a lesson learned the hard way—and we have seen similar such situations in several accidents the NTSB has investigated in recent years.

It’s time to be proactive about aviation safety and accident prevention! The NTSB believes flight data monitoring (FDM) programs for Part 135 operators—which includes charter flights, air tours, air ambulance flights, and cargo flights—is one answer to this problem.

An FDM program can help an operator identify issues with pilot performance, such as noncompliance with SOPs, and can lead to mitigations that will prevent future accidents. Too many Part 135 operations occur in which the operator has no means to determine if the flight was being flown safely. An FDM program can help companies identify deficiencies early on and address patterns of nonstandard crew performance. Most importantly, with an FDM program, pilots will know that their performance is being monitored. As a result of the Akron investigation, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) require all Part 135 operators to install flight data recording devices. But it’s not enough to just capture the data; we also recommend that operators establish an FDM program to use the data to correct unsafe practices. The FAA has yet to act.

But some Part 135 flight operators aren’t waiting for FAA mandates; they have already made the investment in such a proactive safety program—and with great success. One operator I read about started an FDM program recently and is having success using the data in a nonpunitive fashion to monitor approaches. With this critical data at its fingertips, the operator is attempting to identify instances of incorrect aircraft configuration or exceedances of stabilized approach parameters. Designated line pilots assess the data captured in the FDM program to determine if further follow up is needed.

Another Part 135 operator involved in an accident near Togiak, Alaska, investigated by the NTSB recently made the commitment to equip every airplane in its fleet with a flight data recorder. The operator told us the data will “further enable [the company] to review compliance with company procedures through data analysis, similar to a Part 121 operation.”

Togniak, AK
NTSB Member Earl F. Weener (center), Director of the Office of Aviation Safety, John DeLisi (right) and Loren Groff (left), Senior Research Analyst in the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering served as the board of inquiry for an investigative hearing held in Anchorage as part of the ongoing investigation of the crash of flight 3153 near Togiak, Alaska

Kudos to both these operators for learning from past lessons and committing to a culture of safety.

Last year, a Learjet that was being repositioned following a charter flight crashed on approach to an airport in Teterboro, New Jersey. Both crewmembers died. While the final NTSB report on this accident has not yet been released, our analysis of the CVR revealed that the first officer, who was not permitted by the company to fly the airplane, was, in fact, flying the airplane. During this flight, the captain was attempting to coach the first officer. The first officer flew a circling approach; however, when the airplane was one mile from the runway, the circling maneuver had not yet begun. The first officer gave the controls to the captain, who proceeded to bank the airplane so steeply that the tower controller said the wings were “almost perpendicular to the ground” just prior to impact.

It comes as no surprise that the performance of this flight crew was not being monitored by any FDM program.

Isn’t it time to make passenger-flying operations safer? We see this type of program on major commercial Part 121 airlines, so why not on Part 135 aircraft? After all, flight data monitoring is the best way to ensure pilots are flying safely and passengers reach their destinations.

Roundtable Discussion About Loss of Control in Flight Yields Some Important Ideas

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

On April 23, I had the privilege of moderating an important roundtable discussion on preventing loss of control (LOC) in flight in general aviation (GA), the leading factor of general aviation accidents and an issue on our Most Wanted List. LOC involves the unintended departure from flight and can be caused by several factors, including distraction, complacency, weather, or poor energy management.

IMG_8676 (1) Full Group
NTSB Chairman Sumwalt and Member Weener with LOC roundtable participants

 

I can say unequivocally that the NTSB LOC roundtable event—held in our Board Room and Conference Center at our Washington, DC, headquarters and webcast live—was a resounding success. We achieved what we aimed to do: bring together leading experts in government, industry, and academia to identify training and cockpit technology solutions that could make a difference, as well as dig into the challenges of implementing these solutions.

And I was thrilled to hear that about 1,000 pilots and GA enthusiasts watched our discussion, with many receiving FAA WINGS credit.

At our event, we saw an honest, open sharing of ideas among GA safety experts, as well as a willingness to collaborate to address and overcome the challenges associated with this problem, which is the cause of nearly 40 percent of all fixed-wing general aviation crashes. The 18 industry and government participants included a NASA astronaut, a world-famous aerobatics champion and trainer, GA associations, tech companies, the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as our own investigators and Board Member Earl Weener. I was also thrilled to welcome to our roundtable two bright young minds, Thomas Baron and Justin Zhou—high school students from Virginia. Baron and Zhou (Remora Systems) won the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Founder’s Innovation Prize for a product they developed for pilots to help avoid LOC. Their fresh, Generation Z perspectives on this issue enhanced our discussions.

The NTSB’s Director of the Office of Aviation Safety John DeLisi kicked off our discussion with these experts by reminding us that more than 1,500 people have died in the last 10 years due to loss of control and that “we are here to save lives.”

 

Our roundtable experts—all leaders in their organizations—discussed both the challenges and solutions to reducing LOC accidents, especially in the area of training and technology. I will recap just some of their key insights:

 On Training . . .

  • Address pilot weaknesses and skills requirements; pilots should always continue to improve their skills.
  • Reward pilots for additional training taken and ratings achieved, and incentivize new instructors to make sure pilots are taught correctly.
  • Teach students the importance of maintaining situational awareness during their initial training. The first 10 hours that new pilots spend with instructors can be some of the most important training time.
  • Recognize that technology is not a substitute for basic stick skills, nor should it compensate for poor training.
  • Incorporate more realistic scenarios into flight training regarding stalls. Ensure pilots have the confidence to do stall recovery.
  • Train for the startle factor so it doesn’t happen at low altitudes. The stall warning might be too late to recover.

 On Technology . . .

  • Find a responsible role for cockpit technology; it can make a big impact on safety.
  • Continue to responsibly innovate.
  • Reduce angle of attack (AOA); this is the key to recovery. AOA indicators can help.
  • Continue to quickly certify new technologies in a variety of plane types.

Other ideas . . .

  • Use data to improve GA safety; data monitoring programs can help us standardize safety.
  • Establish mechanisms where industry and government can continue to collaborate to collectively find solutions.
  • Recognize that regulation and mandates aren’t always the answer; education and outreach may be a better approach.
  • Utilize pilot social networks and type clubs to learn and grow.
  • Get involved in working groups; study best practices and incorporate outcomes.
  • Be aware of the limits of the airplane; pilots should not fear the capabilities of their planes.
  • Change the way we do outreach. Unifying around a single topic like LOC helps.

The statistics are trending in a good direction, thanks to the FAA’s and industry’s efforts to address LOC. However, from NTSB accident investigations, we know that much more can—and should—be done to accelerate the improvements in training and technology, because one death for what is largely a preventable problem is one too many.

For more information on the LOC roundtable, including the topics covered, participant’s list, and our LOC resources, see our events page.

 

Refusing to Take “No” for an Answer

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

On July 17, 1996, about 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 800 (TWA-800), a Boeing 747-131, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York. The accident killed all 230 people on board, and the airplane was destroyed. The NTSB’s investigation of this accident was the most extensive, complex, and costly air disaster investigation in US history, and was the subject of high public interest and front-page headlines for years.

On August 23, 2000, a little more than 4 years after the crash, the NTSB determined the probable cause to be an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank. Because multiple potential sources were identified, the singular source of ignition for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but the likely source was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter the vapor-laden fuel tank through the fuel-quantity–indicating system in the CWT.

twa 800 4

On December 13, 1996, while the investigation was still ongoing, the NTSB issued the first of three sets of safety recommendations to the FAA. We based these initial recommendations on early findings of the investigation to address the threat of a fuel tank exploding on an airliner. Two recommendations included the development of design or operational changes to prevent explosive fuel-air mixtures in the fuel tanks—including the development of nitrogen-inerting systems. A nitrogen-inerting system replaces the air in an empty fuel tank with nitrogen, creating an environment in which neither a fire nor an explosion can occur. A total revision to FAA regulations for wiring and maintenance, including those of fuel-quantity–indicating systems, also resulted from our findings in this accident investigation.

The FAA’s initial response to our inerting recommendations was to convene a group of industry experts, who found that the costs of implementing the recommendations was too high to be practical. We disagreed and urged the FAA to consider other options. The FAA tried again, tinkering around the edges of the problem, focusing on the wiring and electrical systems in aging aircraft. We welcomed these improvements but reiterated that the agency was ignoring the core issue—the hazard posed by potentially explosive aircraft fuel tanks. To its credit, the FAA chose to apply some “out of the box” thinking, and, together with Boeing, developed a system on the airplane to address the threat.

That innovative technology, called a molecular sieve, separates air into nitrogen and oxygen, the two primary gases. The oxygen is vented overboard while the nitrogen is used to inert the fuel tank. The FAA performed in-depth analysis of the technology, and Boeing produced several prototype systems for testing and evaluation. These tests showed the system to be effective, have minimal operational challenges, and to be reasonably priced. Boeing began installing these systems on some of the new airplanes it was producing.

On November 23, 2005, the FAA proposed a new regulation that required newly manufactured and in-service airliners to reduce the chances of a catastrophic fuel-tank explosion. A final rule was enacted by in 2008, and 100 percent compliance with the rule became mandatory on December 26th of 2017—21 years after the NTSB first recommended fuel-tank inerting to the FAA.

The enactment of the fuel-tank flammability rule is a major safety improvement, addressing a critical safety problem at the heart of many aviation accidents over 45 years. However, its enactment was clearly far from easy; it took the persistent advocacy of the NTSB and the efforts of FAA and Boeing staff unsatisfied with cursory cost-benefit analyses. It took the commitment of senior management at the FAA and DOT—including the Director of the Certification Service, Associate Administrator of Safety, the FAA Administrator, and the Secretary of Transportation—to implement this needed safety regulation.

The traveling public is safer today because these organizations, working together, refused to take “no” for an answer.

Don’t Turn A Blind Eye on Risky Pilot Behavior

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

Leah Read
Leah Read, Senior Air Safety Investigator

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.