Less Regulation, More Personal Responsibility (Amended)


In this blog space, it’s rarely ill-advised to oppose any new regulation and as an evergreen topic, grinding on existing ones from time to time is always good sport, too. So I’ll take a breather here from slamming in detail the Air Tour and Sport Parachuting Improvement Act of 2023 found in the Senate’s version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. I doubt if it would enhance safety in these operations much at the expense of shuffling more paper and checking more training boxes, pretending this would change things.

And this coming from a guy—me—who really believes in training and that regulation, properly applied, definitely moves the safety needle in the right direction. If you think the current near-zero airline accident rate didn’t get there with a healthy dose of industry regulation, I’d call you misinformed if not delusional.

But new rules often lose their punch in the tall grass and weeds of general aviation because we’re largely on our own to comply and it’s no secret that some pilots don’t even know enough to comply, even if they wanted to. When customers step into air tour aircraft they may think it’s similar in operational risk to an airline and why wouldn’t they, with that as the only frame of reference? I have no idea what a first-time tandem parachute customer thinks when entering a jump plane with the headliner patched with duct tape, windows stop-drilled and a cabin floor polished smooth from wear. Skydiving airplanes are often on the last stop before a final trip to the boneyard.

That doesn’t mean they’re unsafe or craters looking for a grid reference, it just means they don’t get the tender loving care your personal airplane does, but in many cases, the minimum care to keep them airworthy. A slice of the skydiving fleet is probably poorly if not illegally maintained. In 27 years of skydiving, I’ve only seen one airplane I wouldn’t fly in, even with the intent of jumping out of it.

On a raw accident and rate basis, skydiving aircraft accidents have been trending downward for the past decade, as jump numbers have gone up. As recently as 2012, there were 14 accidents in a single year. Last year, there was just one; 2021 saw three; 2020 just two. I don’t have hours-flown data for the fleet, but the trend is in the right direction.

The air tour accident rate lives between the overall GA rate and the Part 135 on-demand charter rate. Between 2000 and 2010, the air tour overall rate was 2.7/100,000 hours—about half what GA as a whole was. Most of those are helicopters, but there have been some high-fatality seaplane tour crashes that have tarnished the industry’s record. Without crunching the numbers further, I would just make the point that we should tell our friends that air tours aren’t airlines and the risk in flying them is not insubstantial.

The new proposed rulemaking comes at the behest of Hawaii Senator Bryan Schatz, no doubt reacting the 2019 skydiving King Air crash that killed 11, including the pilot. Hawaii has a lot of air tour activity and there were 54 helicopter crashes between 1984 and 2022. People notice these things and politicians imagine they want something done, hence the Air Tour and Sport Parachuting Improvement Act of 2023.

In reading the King Air accident report, I couldn’t help but think the NTSB is naïve in its understanding of skydiving culture, both in jumping and aircraft operation. The whole enterprise appears so crazy risky—it really isn’t—that the FAA generally keeps it at arm’s distance with regard to surveillance and compliance. In my experience, the agency goes through spates of surveillance, then slacks off until something happens or someone builds a fire, and then another round of inspections that sometimes seem to border on harassment. The skydiving itself is left to the United States Parachute Association to oversee.

The NTSB dug deep into the King Air pilot’s training history, with three busted checkrides (private, instrument, commercial) and training given by an instructor with a high student failure record. Training at the skydiving dropzone where he was employed was described as “a joke” by one pilot interviewed. I wouldn’t tar the entire industry with that sort of description, but pilot training is certainly uneven in the skydiving world. At some dropzones, it’s very good, at others, cursory. But to me, that misses the point.

If a pilot is qualified the day he or she shows up, gets the job and gets the airplane off the ground with skydivers and repeats the process, the rest is fake-it-till-you-make-it. It’s a de facto probationary period overseen by just one person: the drop zone operator or DZO, as we say in the sport. While busted checkrides may indicate a person with weak aptitude to be a pilot, never mind a good pilot, it’s monitored performance that matters. At this rung on the aviation food chain, layering on procedures, record keeping and checkrides matters less than what the person in the seat is actually doing day in and day out. And, critically, what kind of judgement the pilot is exercising irrespective of stick and rudder skills. In my view, this accident was mostly driven by toweringly poor judgment.

The pilot had a reputation for a ground-effect acceleration and hard pull up after retracting the gear, said the accident report. Oh, great fun! If a little of that happens, then a little more, well, you know the rest. The skydiver culture is all about the e-ticket ride, so the customers may actually like that sort of thing and cheer it on, all the while being profoundly ignorant of the risk, not to mention the unprofessionalism in flying paying customers in a way that adds risk.

In my view, the circuit breaker policing this has to be the DZO. I’ll admit the DZO would have no practical way to know about the pilot’s training failures or his or her instructor’s failure rate, but would have a firsthand view of the pilot’s performance and behavior. It’s the drop zone’s interest not to tolerate such stunts and to push back against the look-the-other-way attitude that sometimes permeates the sport. I know, easy for me to say since I don’t have to find and hire a new pilot. On the other hand, commitment to reasonable, safe standards and pushback against excesses is better than digging 11 bodies out of a smoking hole.

As for the King Air itself, it was an example of how aircraft repaired to questionable standards find their way into commercial service in the dark corners of aviation. Refreshing your memory, the airplane lost part of its tail in a stall/spin incident and had a repair that apparently failed to correct a twisted wing. In flight, it required significant deflection of the aileron trim tab to hold level flight. This was cited as a possible factor in the high-speed stall that caused the pilot to lose control and pitch the airplane into the ground. How did such a thing get through what’s supposed to be a robust inspection system? What IAs signed that off? (Addition: The owner of the King Air contacted us and said the tail repair was approved by the factory and that the airplane had been inspected by the FAA prior to its ferry flight to Hawaii and upon its arrival there. He said he believed the wing wasn’t twisted but that the engine mount was canted due to damage caused by a gear-up landing, not the small-spin incident that damaged the tail.)  

When accidents gain a high profile—as this one did—there’s frequently a call for the FAA to do more surveillance, enforcement or regulation. This occasionally devolves into studies of the psychological details of why pilots make the dumb decisions they do. This is sometimes justified. But I grow weary of this kneejerk reaction to insist on external forces to fix a human problem. In commercial operations, pilots and operators, in my view, have enough rules and procedures to guide them. What’s most needed is a culture that encourages—no, insists—on personal responsibility for prudent decision making.  

In skydiving, that’s not coming from the NTSB, the FAA or even USPA. It should start and end with the DZO, in my view.  

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  1. Thanks Paul. Did this legislation attempt to calculate the added costs to the industry and compare it with the safety (ie lives saved). Was there any of that calculus provided?

  2. Paul, your analysis is cogent and bolstered by decades of participation in the activity. You’re right about where the buck should stop (DZO, not the govt. alphabets) but the sad truth is that economics drive nearly all safety shortcuts. It’s going to take a concerned airport community to make it in the DZO’s best economic interest to rein in the cowboys like that King Air pilot and the IA that signed off its repairs. Absent any pushback from the DZ airport community, there is no real incentive to mitigate unsafe conditions. Community-policing is almost always better than any other form.

  3. “But I grow weary of this kneejerk reaction to insist on external forces to fix a human problem.”

    Yes. The very human problem of discipline, the lack of which infects way too many in every calling.

  4. I jumped and flew jump air planes out of Dillingham Airfield during the mid 70’s.

    As best as I can recall, from a fading memory, there was no DZO.

  5. Perhaps we should call this proposed legislation “The Ugly Airplane Act.”

    That King Air had a previous accident. The aircraft was repaired–test flown, and SOMEBODY signed off on the repair–all in accordance with FAA procedures.

    The aircraft continued to fly for an undisclosed number of hours. Presumably, it went through other inspections–there is a post-crash mention of a “wing heavy condition”–but neither the pilot(s) nor a mechanic thought it serious enough to look further. Yet this Senator looking to make a name for himself–with no aviation experienced mentioned, is proposing legislation to “correct” a “problem” that the people most involved with the aircraft (the pilots and mechanics) didn’t think was unsafe. I’d like to know how many different pilots flew that aircraft, or how many mechanics looked at it and found it not to be a problem. I haven’t seen anything in the narrative that says that this WAS the problem–the “Safety Senator” seems to be second-guessing those with actual “stake in the game”–the pilots and mechanics actually involved.

    I have nearly 10,000 hours in King Airs–it is one of the safest aircraft produced (as evidenced by the most favorable insurance rates in the industry). I used to fly freight in a variety of aircraft, both piston and turbine–including Queen Airs (with IO-720 engines). The maintenance and reliability was so good that the operator sold his Aztecs and replaced them with Queen Airs–in 3 years of night freight, I never had a mechanical delay. I mention this because the King Air and Queen Airs share much of the same design and structure. Yes, as Paul mentions, this is more about the APPEARANCE of the aircraft than the maintenance and training–yet the commercial operations (including skydiving, powerline/pipeline patrol, fish spotting, crop dusting, etc. has a BETTER record than the GA fleet as a whole. Would the Senator feel better getting on board an aircraft with a new paint job? Perhaps we should call this proposed foolish regulation proposal “The Ugly Aircraft Regulation Act.”

    If a skydiver (with two parachutes!) doesn’t want to board an airplane that “looks bad”–then DON’T! I love watching Paul “put the lie” using actual information to proposals that people “know” to be true–but are not. It is a sanctum of sanity in an industry increasingly ruled by emotion–not reality. Perhaps it is still not too late to draft him as the next FAA Administrator!

  6. If pilots and mechanics don’t follow the rules we currently have, then adding more rules isn’t going to help.

    • Regulations should only be added in response to an accident when everyone did everything right, but the accident still occurred.

        • “Regulations should only be added in response to an accident when everyone did everything right, but the accident still occurred.”

          I find that comment the most logical in any aviation related content thus far.

          Please describe a scenario in which it’s not true.

          • For instance, if someone was breaking a rule, but was getting away with it regularly, it very well might make sense to change the rule so it’s less easy to get away with it or so someone else has to check or there’s a bigger penalty.

            This pretty much now seems to be the default response whenever theirs a major event or whenever the bureaucracy has to actually do work to enforce the rules.

          • “ For instance, if someone was breaking a rule, but was getting away with it regularly, it very well might make sense to change the rule”

            That’s hardly a scenario in which “everyone did everything right”.

          • Ah, yep. You are correct.

            Are we talking about doing everything by the regs, or just “right”. The last way seems problematic as by definition, if there was a problem, something was done wrong. For some reason, I’m not completely sure why I’m not convinced. I’m afraid I’m not thinking of something.

          • Wait. The question is whether rules should be added ONLY when everyone did everything right. My example is one where someone was misbehaving and yet a new reg might be called for.

            I think I was correct all along. So confusing though.

  7. Why would anybody jump out of a perfectly good airplane? iNSANITY!!!

    Oh… wait… those skydiving planes aren’t perfectly good airplanes! 😉

    • We jumped because we might be needed to, and we were supposed to be ready.

      And, the plane and all its parts were made by the lowest bidder.

  8. The FAA is the typical one-trick pony. When something bad happens and several people die, Congress and the public scream “DO SOMETHING”, and the only thing the FAA thinks it can do is pass more regulations. And if they don’t, Congress will do it for them. In a perfect world, people would always be responsible and do the right thing. In our imperfect, “free” society, that doesn’t always happen, which is one reason why we have so many rules and regulations. Yes, the DZO should be the person who oversees the operations and makes sure everything is done right. But he/she is also subject to outside pressures and, being human, sometimes makes mistakes or takes shortcuts. Caveat emptor.

    • Thank you for your comment. Please note that in our system of government regulators (the FAA, in this case) are only able to generate rules consistent with laws and authorities granted by Congress. The FAA and NTSB play an advisory role to Congress, but do not ‘pass legislation’ as your comment states.

      • The OP wrote about the FAA passing “more regulations”, not legislation. Under our system of government as currently interpreted, regulations by federal executive agencies have the force of law. As long as the “Chevron deference” standard survives as a Supreme Court precedent, the judgement of those agencies is presumed to be correct. They have become a defacto super-legislature.

        • Forgive me – I misread ‘regulation’ as ‘legislation’. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Chevron deference standard states that the reasonable judgment of the agency is granted deference by the courts when Congress is silent or ambiguous and the agency is acting within its mandate, but the courts routinely strike down regulations where agencies act contrary to Congressional intent. The courts have not, as you state, established federal agencies as ‘super-legislatures’.

        • Chevron deference is closed to death due to good changes in the Supreme Court. Slowly but surely SCOTUS is increasing the pressure on Congress to start doing its job, and thus for us voters to do ours. (Which is mostly to throw the bums out and keep the statesmen).

    • Following all the rules doesn’t happen in authoritarian societies either. People respond to different incentives, but the one I’ve found most powerful is actually fear of letting one’s group down by not doing one’s duty. Any decent Army unit gets a lot of value out of that. What kills it is the people at the top not getting their jobs done right and piling so many gotchas on people they have to prioritize and take risks.

  9. In 52 years in the FBO/Airport management business, I’ve found that “shunning” a pilot or business that engages in dangerous practices is far more effective than passing additional regulations. That word gets around fast, and “The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith” soon puts the miscreant out of business–government need not be involved.

    It has been said for decades that “The FAA considers itself a failure every time an airplane takes off” –because there is a “risk” that “something might happen”–and the only way to eliminate that risk is to keep airplanes on the ground. Apparently, that line of “thinking” also applies to Congresscritters as well!

  10. One comment strikes the nail right on the head…if current rules and regs are not complied with then what’s he use of more paper? There is a much more important problem that needs to be solved and this can only happen bottom-up = just culture. Rules and regs should not be followed for fear of enforcement. They should be followed because they promote safety and trust.

  11. I see there’s a NEW sport … bungee cord / wing suit jumping. Somebody with a wing suit jumps off a cliff or drops out of an airplane with another yokel connected to the wing suit “pilot” by a bungee cord. Now what could happen THERE? I think the FAA and Congress needs to write still more Regs for THAT burgeoning ‘sport.’ I think wing suits should have “N” numbers and ADS-B! Get with it, FAA!

  12. “In commercial operations, pilots and operators, in my view, have enough rules and procedures to guide them. What’s most needed is a culture that encourages—no, insists—on personal responsibility for prudent decision making.”

    The pilot was severely sanctioned for his actions. Not so much the tour operator, the mechanic, or all the roadside stands raking in the do-re-me.

    I don’t know about this particular flight, but Dillingham operations specialize in “civilians buddy jumps & whale watching glider rides for the Hawaiian tourist trade. In short, people who are incapable of accurately assessing the risks (not knowing what they don’t know). In my mind, that puts this operation in a different category from the hardcore jumping crowd.

    I imagine the FAA is under a lot of pressure from the grieving families of the nieve tourists to “do something.” The lawmaker is just the conduit. And in a litigious society, if there is no specific rule broken, there is no foul. In today’s legalized America, your “guidance” is not enough to punish the real culprits. They just lawyer up.

    I do agree with your call for more personal responsibility, but as James Madison already knew, “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

  13. In my limited experience as a part-time CFI, I’ve noticed that the pilots at least one airport do an excellent job of policing themselves… and sometimes this effort extends to the visitors and transients. This past weekend the airport had a yearly expo that was a great success, mainly due to the outstanding airport management and volunteer crew (the orange shirts… thanks to all of you!). There were a couple of mavericks that ‘performed’ in a manner that most thought a bit unsafe… and their fellow pilots met with them afterward and strongly suggested that they not do anything like that again. Problem solved without elevated tempers or FAA involvement.

    Safety begins at home and is OUR responsibility above all.

  14. ‘DZO’, always a classy acronym to add a little class. When will we ever run out of unused combinations of letters in aviation? Perhaps the aircraft and pilot are part of the aviation community but those who choose to participate and call this a sport should consider it something else. Extreme recklessness behavior comes to mind which at least to me puts the participants in the same category as the reckless pilot. One of those pots calling the kettle black things. Orville and Wilbur never had this ‘sport’ in mind. Somewhere along the line…..

  15. The military used to have a way to improve aviation safety–peer pressure. We’ve carried on the tradition for over 50 years–because it WORKS!

    If a pilot is observed by his colleagues at the airport doing something stupid (intentionally or not)–the person observing calls out “Six Pack!” to the offender–who is then obligated to buy a six-pack of beer for the hangar refrigerator. After hours, pilots (including the offender) gather to enjoy the beer together in a spirit of conviviality. The system WORKS:

    The offender’s own PEERS at the airport gently let him know that he was observed doing something stupid. The offender ACKNOWLEDGES the issue by buying a six-pack of beer–which is consumed discretely after hours (including by the offender). By their actions, the fellow airmen have let the offender know that THEY CARE about the well-being of the offender, and rather than “preaching”–they bring it to his attention, he acknowledges the transgression–and will know that his fellow pilots care enough about his safety to bring it up–in a non-threatening and “non-preaching’ way. When I was skydiving, the club also adopted the practice.

    One of the skydivers was heard to say “Things are getting a bit dull around here–the beer fridge is EMPTY–I guess that ONE OF US IS GOING TO HAVE TO GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING MILDLY STUPID TO GET SOME BEER AROUND HERE!”

    Once again–the system WORKS because the person’s PEERS (not the regulators) bring it to the attention of the person–letting them gently know “we don’t DO THAT around here–I think you owe a six-pack”–all is good when the offender participates in the conviviality and is reassured that these fellow aviators care enough about him/her to bring it to their attention. The person usually changes to “fit in with the group”–one of the very definitions of true “Learning.” It is far more effective than the “carrot or the stick”mentality of regulatory attempts for reform.

  16. Mr. B.

    Thank you for another well thought out and well intentioned missive.

    I do have a small problem with one bit though. The mention of the pilot having failed check rides as though it indicates something. It doesn’t. If a pilot’s failure to pass a check ride on the first go is a factor, then why are retests allowed? Are you suggesting we wash folks out and eliminate them from the ability to fly for failing one check ride?

    I’ve seen this popping up more and more lately and it ticks me off. We have a system for a reason; and the system works well generally speaking. Check rides can be failed for many many reasons, not all of which are proper. DPE’s are human and the FAA does demand a certain percentage of failure. If you’re with the wrong DPE when (s)he needs to fail someone you fail. That pilot could be the next Bob Hoover, but failure was necessary.


    • And failure could produce positive result that a pilot who hadn’t failed did get. So let’s just get over this, “oh he failed a check ride” thing. It’s terribly juvenile, and implies that the speaker knows better than the folks who actually flew with the pilot when (s)he DID pass the check ride.

      All said though, from what was written I do not argue that this pilot appears to have have and exercised very poor judgment. That should have gotten him fired. The DZO – presumably his boss – should have declined to have that under his responsibility and sent him packing. Alas it seems as though airworthiness of aircraft was also ignored.

      So you’re right. DZO is it.

        • “….. with three busted checkrides (private, instrument, commercial) and training given by an instructor with a high student failure record.”

          Those were three types of checkrides. While each may build skills toward the others, just because you passed one, doesn’t mean you’re skilled enough to pass the others. Still though, you’re comment has some merit in that they may be separate types of checkrides, they do show a trend.

          However, that trend might start here: “ training given by an instructor with a high student failure record.” I would point to this as a common denominator regarding any checkrides and training issues.

    • Bill:
      I would agree with you if we are talking about people sitting around the FBO and pointing at someone and snickering about that person’s failure. However, in the context of an accident/incident investigation a person’s checkride history is extremely significant.

      How many checkrides failed along with how far apart those failures are can possibly indicate a lack of aeronautical knowledge/ability or something else (i.e. Parker P-51 time in the logbook). In this case, he failed 3 separate rides from July 2017 to December 2017. He failed his private pilot SEL, instrument rating and commercial MEL rides.

      Here is a link to the NTSB docket https://data.ntsb.gov/Docket/?NTSBNumber=WPR19MA177

      Item #3 has his checkride info.

  17. On another note, How many GA accidents have been caused by medical problems? It seemed to me that basic medical should be eliminated from light sport and let Ga grow.