Business aviation shows its safety weaknesses

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Business aviation is subject to US and international safety initiatives that appear to be welcomed by the industry, but statistics suggest many operators are not getting the message. Runway excursion resulting in serious damage, one of the accident types theoretically among the easiest to eliminate, occurs regularly.

In 2007 there were 10 reported serious runway excursion accidents involving business jets, almost all in the USA. To late September the number of business jet excursion accidents was five. The Flight Safety Foundation, which studied 251 business aircraft accidents from 1991 to 2002 recently, found that 63 of them (25.1%) involved runway excursions.

cessna citation i crash gareth fuller/pa photos
 © Gareth Fuller/PA Photos

Speaking at the European Business Aviation Association Conference and Exhibition in Geneva this year, FSF president Bill Voss highlighted runway safety in all its forms as being worthy of particular attention, but excursions in particular. He said: "Data shows runway excursions are the most common type of runway safety accident (96%) and the most common type of fatal runway safety accident (80%)."

The US National Business Aircraft Association has registered the industry-wide concern with the number of runway excursion accidents and reiterated the message to its member operators. Heightened concern followed the Federal Aviation Administration runway safety awareness campaign after the National Transportation Safety Board's publication of its report on an overrun from a snow-contaminated runway at Chicago Midway airport in December 2005. The fatal Comair Bombardier CRJ100ER crash in 2006 gave rise to new terminology describing a potentially serious runway safety risk: "runway confusion" - using the wrong runway without realising it. But, as Voss pointed out, among all categories of runway safety events, runway excursions produce 80% of the fatal accidents.


The figures for the whole industry from 1995 to 2007, according to the FSF's Jim Burin speaking at this year's FSF/NBAA Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar at Palm Harbor, Florida, show that five runway incursions have produced 129 fatalities, two runway confusion incidents have produced 132 deaths, but 31 excursions have resulted in 680 fatalities. Having said that, Burin points out that it was the uncleared entry on to a runway in fog by a business jet that produced Europe's worst runway incursion accident in that period. That was when an SAS Boeing MD-80 that had been cleared to take off collided with a Citation CJ2 at Milan Linate airport in October 2001, killing all 114 people in both aircraft, and four more people in a cargo terminal hit by the wreckage.

Voss also points out that in the vast majority of cases the way of avoiding landing overruns or excursions is simply to ensure that the approach is stabilised in profile and speed, and touchdown is achieved within the runway touchdown zone. As Burin neatly expresses it: "Not all unstable approaches end up as a runway excursion, but every runway excursion starts as an unstable approach."

Among the 10 business jet runway excursions in 2007, eight involved excursions on landing, and seven of those followed unstabilised approaches. Regarding overrun incidents in the last two years, the National Transportation Safety Board has noted that pilot fatigue is often a factor in the failure of pilots to plan approaches and landing performance properly taking into account weather and runway contamination, and failure to recognise the cues that should lead to a decision to go around.

Using a regional jet overrun at Cleveland airport in February 2007 as an example of a classic set of circumstances likely to lead to runway excursion, the NTSB has called for more comprehensive simulator training for pilots in making go-around decisions. The agency says that the crew of the Shuttle America Embraer 170 landed in light snow and poor visibility and "failed to execute a missed approach when visual cues for the runway were not distinct and identifiable". The NTSB cites several contributory factors:

learjet 60 over run at columbia metropolitan airport brett flashnick/pa photos 
 © Brett Flashnick/PA Photos
  • The crew's decision to descend to the instrument landing system decision height instead of the localiser only minimum descent altitude
  • The fact that the first officer [the pilot flying] landed long and fast on a short, contaminated runway and the crew failed to use reverse thrust and braking to maximum effectiveness
  • The captain's fatigue, which affected his ability to plan for and monitor the approach and landing
  • Shuttle America's failure to administer a policy that permitted pilots to report their fatigue without fear of reprisals.

The NTSB has since called for all operators to adopt a policy stating that either pilot may call for a go-around, and the response should be an immediate missed approach.

This year to late September, however, there has been only one serious business jet landing excursion, although it followed an unstabilised approach. But there were several excursions during take-off. So, if nearly nine months of one year is anything to go by, maybe the message is getting through.

In addition to the FSF's continual efforts at improving awareness of specific risks and developing strategies to avoid them, an International Civil Aviation Organisation-endorsed organisation known as the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operation (IS-BAO) has been in existence since 2002 and is gathering registered operators, whose numbers earlier this year stood at 100. It is based upon helping the sector develop codes of best practice, and provides advice on setting up safety management systems.


Meanwhile the European Business Aircraft Association is working with regional agencies to address safety problems particularly relevant to corporate and business aircraft operation. Operational areas in which business aviation performs significantly less well than airlines, according to the UK Civil Aviation Authority's general aviation flight operations policy manager Chris Finnegan, include: level busts, runway incursions, standard instrument departure deviations, communications errors and crew fatigue-related incidents.

Finnegan said at this years' EBACE business aviation conference in Geneva that sector safety improvements could flow from better communications between the operators and the regulatory agencies, including the European Aviation Safety Agency and the national aviation authorities, and that they plan single-point contacts at the agencies for the business and general aviation sectors. He says there is a perceived lack of interest in the sector by the regulators.

Eric Sivel, EASA's deputy director of rulemaking, says he is in favour of the modern performance and competency-based systems as embodied in training for the multi-crew pilot licence and Europe's standardised JAA pilot licensing system. But Sivel says that whenever the agency tries to advance the regulatory case for competency-based training programmes at all levels, pilot organisations and states press for adherence to hours-based training, because - he says - "hours are easier to count". Finnegan adds that there is concern at the inadequate level of system preparation for single-pilot operated VLJs (see box).

Sivel was comprehensively backed up by Capt Robin Pursey, flight operations director at Airbus's executive and private aviation division, in his advocacy of performance-based training programmes and testing schedules aimed at modern commercial aviation, addressing specifically the type of operation each operator performs and the risks it faces.


Eurocontrol is about to mount an air traffic management simulation of European airspace likely to be used by very light jets, says the agency's deputy director of air traffic management strategies Alex Hendriks. This year it has been working to collate enough information about VLJ performance, and about the types and expected frequency of operation, to be able to run a realistic simulation of what controllers and pilots can expect, and how they can deal with the additional movements in medium- and high-level controlled airspace.

The intention is to examine how air navigation service providers will have to plan to be able to cope with the expected rapid growth in VLJ numbers. The growth rate in business aircraft operating in European airspace is not restricted to jets only, although jet numbers are growing fastest: jet numbers were up 12.1% in 2007 compared with the year before, but turboprop numbers also increased by 6.1%, while piston numbers declined by 0.1%.

Starting shortly, the simulation will be mounted at Eurocontrol's research centre in Budapest, Hungary, says Hendriks. It will be a vital tool in determining how best to handle this new air transport phenomenon, which he says should not be under-estimated. "The growth of VLJs adds a significant extra dimension to the complexity of air traffic in Europe," he adds.

Hendriks says the different performance characteristics of VLJs compared with regular commercial aircraft, both in the departure and en-route phases of flight, are likely to have a "considerable impact" on the air transport network. They do not fly as fast as most jet airliners, and their climb rate is slower. As a result, ideas already being developed for testing in simulation include separate VLJ-specific departure paths from busy airports, and tactical offsets from busy routes.

Europe is working hard to determine what is required to enable the air traffic management system to cope with the demands VLJs will pose, says Hendriks. He reveals that the US Federal Aviation Administration has been sufficiently impressed with Europe's ongoing research on measures to deal with the growth of VLJ traffic that it has invited Eurocontrol to Washington DC to share ideas on how to meet this new challenge.

About 500 VLJs are on order from customers intending to use them in Europe and nearly half of these are expected to be delivered by the end of 2010, says Eurocontrol. It estimates that 100 aircraft will enter service each year and 700 will be operating by 2015. Eurocontrol's latest research indicates that the average VLJ in Europe - mostly in the hands of air taxi operators - will operate three flights of about 1h duration each day. Eurocontrol believes that in about a year's time, the ATM system will handle a net additional 200-300 flights a day purely because of the introduction of VLJs into the marketplace.

This number may be offset by the airline traffic reduction caused by the current economic situation, but the performance differences from other aircraft using the upper airspace remain.

"We'll also need to assess the technical requirements for on-board systems," says Hendriks. This will include an analysis of whether VLJs should be required to carry an airborne collision-avoidance system. European airspace regulations only mandate carriage of such systems by civil aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of over 5,700kg (12,550lb) - twice that of a typical VLJ - or with more than 19 seats.

That rule was made in an era when most aircraft below that weight band would have been turboprops or piston-powered aircraft, which would naturally occupy flight levels below flight level 290 (29,000ft/8,840m).

There are also issues with the high level of reliance by certain VLJs on satellite navigation assuming that space based augmentation - the equivalent of the USA's wide area augmentation system (WAAS) will be available in Europe. Well, there will be one eventually - the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay System - but it is not approved for operational use yet, Eurocontrol warns.

Meanwhile it also predicts that air traffic safety will increasingly depend on technology as well as see-and-avoid, explaining: "Each flying object must report its position and have access to the position of other aircraft." Automatic dependent surveillance - broadcast in and out, which can receive datalinked flight information system and terminal information system signals will be the answer for general aviation and business aviation use, says Eurocontrol.

It does not envisage the need for small aircraft to be fitted with VHF datalink like airliners.