Following several high-profile fatal accidents in revenue Part 91 flight operations, the NTSB Tuesday recommended that the FAA develop new safety standards for operators and that it tighten up surveillance and oversight of companies offering air tours, air combat, skydiving and tourist flights. The agency adopted a report that makes six recommendations to the FAA for improving revenue Part 91 operational safety, including closing regulatory loopholes and exemptions, giving inspectors better guidance for surveillance, developing a database of such operations and requiring companies to develop Safety Management Systems similar to those used by the airlines, but scaled to smaller operations.
The recommendations were spurred by a spate of accidents in which 45 people were killed and 10 injured in revenue flight operations conducted under Part 91. These include the Lockhart, Texas, commercial balloon accident that killed 16 in 2016 and two more recent accidents, the Collings Foundation B-17 crash at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, in which seven were killed in October 2019 and a skydiving crash in Hawaii in June 2019 that killed 11.
Investigations into these accidents, according to the NTSB, revealed a pattern of minimal FAA surveillance, insufficient pilot training and/or maintenance oversights. Also mentioned were two accidents that the NTSB deemed as operators using regulatory loopholes to avoid more stringent compliance. One involved an air combat operation in California that billed itself as a Part 61 flight school and another, the FlyNyon helicopter crash in New York in 2018 that was flown under air photography exemptions. Five passengers drowned when the Eurocopter AS350 landed in the East River after a power failure. The aircraft was operated with its doors off for photography. Passengers were secured with tethers that kept them from exiting the aircraft when it inverted in the water.
The NTSB reiterated open recommendations it has made in the past, including urging the FAA to develop a consistent policy to bring air tour operators under one consistent national standard, similar to Part 135, and to eliminate the exception in Part 135.1, which limits compliance for flights operating to and from the same airport within 25 miles. It also reiterated its call for Safety Management Systems. These are required of Part 121 airline operations, but are voluntary for other operators. They have not been well received in the industry. Of some 2000 Part 135 companies that could qualify for SMS, only 17 have adopted it and another 158 have program development in progress, according to the NTSB.
Board vice-chairman Bruce Landsberg noted that the Collings Foundation had an SMS program for its B-17 operation, which had been stipulated by the FAA to approve flights under the Living History Flight Exemptions program. The program allows vintage warbirds to carry revenue-paying passengers without complying with Part 135 requirements. However, the NTSB investigation revealed that the FAA never inspected Collings to determine compliance. “On the SMS business, the B-17 crash in Windsor Locks, the Collings Foundation was required as part of their waiver to have an SMS. But the FAA said it did not have any ability to provide oversight on this and this seems like an oxymoron to me. How can it be that it’s a requirement for your exemption and yet the FAA is not able to provide oversight to see that you are actually doing it?” Landsberg said. The investigation revealed that FAA conducted no direct oversight of Collings’ B-17 program and actually ignored the foundation’s questions about regulatory issues.
Some of the board’s discussion turned on how the flying public can assess whether an operator is safe or has a good safety record. Member Jennifer Homendy noted that passengers who fly on Part 121 scheduled airlines expect a certain level of safety and she acknowledged that someone flying on an air tour or skydiving aircraft might not necessarily expect the same level of safety. “They know there is a risk of jumping out of an airplane. But what they are not thinking about is that the airplane is going crash. It is maintained? Do they have a certificate?” she said. “If you get on a vintage aircraft, how do you know? What is your go-to? For buses, there is a website for [bus safety]. Is there anything like that in aviation?” she asked the NTSB staff. The answer is no.
Although the NTSB is not recommending significant new regulation of revenue Part 91 flights, its investigations revealed that existing regulations are simply not being observed and accidents were a consequence of this. For example, egregious maintenance issues were uncovered in the Hawaii skydiving aircraft crash and maintenance shortfalls were also an issue in the Collings crash. In both cases, regulatory noncompliance may be factors in the crashes, according to the NTSB. (Final reports on those accidents aren’t available yet.)
Although it offered no specifics on what an all-encompassing safety standard might be, the board did discuss a regulation adopted by New Zealand’s CAA that offers oversight on what it calls Adventure Aviation. As in the U.S., these operations fit outside the usual categories and are defined by the regulation as flights involving aerobatics. Presumably, this would address air combat operations.
The NTSB’s final report on its recommendations for Part 91 flights will be available online in a few weeks, according to the agency.