EBACE: Business aviation struggles to flatline on safety

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Business aviation safety performance, whether measured in accident rates or simple fatal accident totals, has been getting worse for the past three years. The rate still shows improvement over the long term, but a mathematical tipping point has been reached, and one more year of worsening figures will reverse it.

Last year there were eight fatal accidents to business jets compared with 2012 when there were six, according to Flightglobal Ascend’s Business Aviation Safety and Losses review of 2013. Meanwhile business turboprops suffered 17 fatal accidents against 16 in 2012. The five-year moving average number of accidents for jets and turboprops have both been on a slow downward trend since 2008, but this could also be reversed if 2014 sees fatal accident numbers increase again (see graphs). For turboprops, crew and passenger fatality numbers are actually on the rise and have been since 2006, but jet fatalities have been steady since then.

If figures for all major accidents involving business jets, both fatal and non-fatal, are taken into account, however, there was a drop from the 2012 figure of 13 to 8 in 2013, so the message is by no means all bad. But public and user perception tends to be based on fatal accidents because they are more fully reported, and if there is internet footage of the event, as there is for the 5 January 2014 Bombardier Challenger 601 crash on landing at Aspen, Colorado, the effect is heightened.

Although the fatal accident picture is not particularly good in recent chronological terms, the 2013 rate is still better than the decade annual average for business jets. And although business jet rates still compare well with airline safety figures, the airlines have been able to sustain a long and almost continuous improvement in their rates, unlike the business sector’s performance in the last three years. So unless the business aviation sector resumes an improving trend soon, there will be a divergence from the much-valued favourable comparison with the airlines, which is an important factor in public and user perception of the sector.

Former US Navy pilot and Flight Safety Foundation Fellow Jim Burin, summing up the business aviation sector’s performance for the FSF’s 16-17 April Business Aviation Safety Summit (BASS) in San Diego, California, said an issue that particularly needs addressing is the high proportion of approach and landing accidents – a higher proportion than the airlines experience. Burin, an advocate of the predictive approach to risk management and accident prevention says 90% of next year’s accidents can be forecast by using operational data from the past 10 years. He says 50% will be approach and landing accidents, and half of those will be runway excursions; also there will be at least six controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents, two of them involving jets and four of them turboprops; finally there will be one or two in-flight upset accidents. The remaining 10% be “black swan” events – the type for which there is no precursor, or insufficient data for reliable projections. The only question Burin did not address is which operators are going to suffer these accidents when they happen.

The Challenger crash at Aspen at the beginning of this year was an extraordinary example of a landing accident that ended in a fatal runway excursion. The pilot was cleared to land on runway 15 with a high tailwind – for noise abatement reasons – but did not challenge the clearance. Pilots can ask for runway 33 if there are high tailwinds on 15, but 33 has a slight down slope. The touchdown seems also to have taken place at a high indicated airspeed as well as what must have been a frighteningly high groundspeed, with the 20kt (37km/h) tailwind and the almost 8,000ft airfield elevation, because the aircraft bounced and ballooned, the pilot lost control and the aircraft came to rest inverted.

The National Transportation Safety Board will want to understand why the pilot decided to go ahead with the high-risk approach, and later not to go around when the aircraft bounced. The FSF’s observation, from data, that business aviation is even more liable that the airlines to approach and landing accidents and runway overruns may be useful information on its own, but the circumstances or mindset that leads to this state of affairs need to be understood if the risk is to be managed.

Business aircraft have similar levels of cockpit automation to airliners, so it is valid to wonder whether the loss of traditional pilot flying skills that the airlines are experiencing has also transferred to business aviation. Looking at the individual fatal accidents that happened in 2013, among the eight jet fatals, four happened at night or in poor visibility, and among the 17 turboprop fatal accidents, six occurred at night or in poor weather. Among those jet accidents three involved loss of control in flight, and among the turboprops four of them did. On its own that is not enough of a sample to draw reliable conclusions, but maybe chief pilots ought to be asking questions about whether their crews’ instrument flying skills get sufficient refreshment in recurrent training.

Business aircraft pilots, however, would be expected to get more time carrying out hand flying and circling approaches because, by the nature of their job, they are more likely than airline pilots to fly to secondary airports and even simple airfields, even if most of the time they fly instrument landing system approaches like their heavy metal counterparts. The fact that they face more frequent exposure to visual or non-precision approaches, however, is a quantifiable risk, so the skills required for visual flying and circling approaches cannot be taken for granted either.

One of the fatal jet accidents and four of the turboprop ones appear to have been cases of CFIT, usually during approach but also during early descent. Where airlines have been required to fit terrain awareness warning systems (TAWS), which has reduced dramatically the incidence of CFIT in commercial air transport, TAWS is not mandated for smaller aircraft.

Among the jet fatal accidents, four happened just after take-off or in the climb. Also, several of the accidents involved mishandled go-arounds, which have been a rising problem for the airlines in the past few years. In a few of the cases, engine failure or loss of power in twins appears to have been a factor, but in turbine aircraft the remaining engine should be able to cope if there are no other problems. When the final investigation reports become available, a study is needed to discover why climbing away from an airfield seems to have become a risky operation.

At this year’s FSF BASS, Burin called for the industry to collect, pool and analyse incident data as well as accidents, and to become predictive in its approach to safety management. As he said to the delegates in San Diego: “We now have the capability to be predictive in our safety efforts – but is the system ready to take advantage of this capability?”