NBAA 2006: Road to safety - Can VLJs maintain business aviation safety statistics?

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Flying in a business jet is one of the safest forms of travel and the industry is taking steps to make it even safer – but could VLJs mar an impressive record?

Business aviation is showing impressive safety results and imaginative thinking for the future. But there are worries. The USA had a good year in 2005 and that pattern has continued into 2006, both in North America and the rest of the world. Set against this background is a combination of enthusiasm and apprehension about the imminent arrival of very light jets (VLJ) into the marketplace, and the US Federal Aviation Administration has made some interesting predictions about what VLJs will do for safety statistics.

 
© Empics / Stuart Ransom   
This Challenger 600 skidded off the runway at Teterboro because its centre of gravity was over the limit

Meanwhile, aircraft manufacturers are showing the way ahead in developing advanced pilot training techniques that go well beyond FAA licensing requirements. This more pro-active way of thinking about training is seen as necessary to prepare for the imminent arrival of affordable VLJs that are forecast to revolutionise the general aviation sector. But this training will not be available only to VLJ customers.

“The bottom line is that corporate aviation has a good story to tell and the story will continue to get even better,” Robert Matthews, head of the FAA’s office of accident investigation, told this year’s Flight Safety Foundation (FSF)/National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) corporate aviation safety seminar. “The story is not as strong in business aviation, but there too trends are good and will continue to improve.”

Unlike the industry at large, which uses business and corporate aviation as synonyms, “the FAA definition stresses not-for-hire transportation in each category, then distinguishes between the two based on whether flights are operated by professional pilots”, says Matthews. A corporate or executive operation, according to the FAA’s definition, is flown by professional flightcrews and has a professional maintenance department and flight department – however small. It may have a diverse fleet, but is dominated by turbine-powered aircraft with modern avionics; and while it may have diverse operations they are carried out wherever possible under instrument flight rules (IFR).

That gives the sector a “very safe profile”, says Matthews, pointing out there was only one fatal corporate accident last year involving an aircraft on the US register: on 16 February 2005 a Cessna Citation V crashed on approach to Pueblo, Colorado, killing all eight people on board. The cause is assessed as icing. The aircraft was the first of a pair, both owned by electronics retailer Circuit City and managed by Martinair, and both heading for Pueblo. There was freezing rain and a low cloudbase, and the crew lost control about 6.5km (3.5nm) from the airport.

In the spotlight

The Pueblo Citation crash is one of several in the USA involving business jets and turboprops since the beginning of 2004 – some of them high profile – that have put corporate, on-demand charter and air-taxi safety in the public spotlight. Other serious accidents that took place in 2005 included:

■ 4 August 2005, Mitsubishi MU-2B, at Centennial airport in Denver, Colorado: an air-taxi aircraft crashed into terrain during a night instrument landing system (ILS) approach. The pilot appeared to be preoccupied because he did not respond to all the controllers’ calls, two of which warned he was too low. The only person on board, he was killed.

■ 26 March 2005, Pilatus PC-12, at University Park airport in State College, Pennsylvania: loss of control during descent toward airfield, crashed in a spiral turn killing all six occupants. The pilot was an instrument-rated private pilot.

■ 2 February 2005, Bombardier Challenger 600, at Teterboro airport in New Jersey: this chartered aircraft failed to rotate for take-off because its centre of gravity was well forward of the limit. It overran the end of the runway and crashed through the perimeter fence, ran across a highway hitting two cars, and came to rest having smashed through a wall of a building. The three crew and eight passengers survived.

With the Pueblo crash, the only one the FAA considers to be corporate aviation, the agency says the accident rate in the sector is reducing. Matthews believes this probably results from a combination of improvements in avionics, powerplants, satellite navigation, air traffic control (ATC), weather forecasting and dissemination of weather information. But, he says: “Perhaps the biggest factor – as with the air carrier world – is a major change in the fleet.” The jet fleet has continued to grow as a proportion of total corporate/business aircraft, and that disparity has increased dramatically since 2004 when the turboprop fleet peaked and began falling in real numbers. Last year, according to FAA figures, there were 9,000 corporate/executive jets in the US fleet and 3,000 in the rest of the world, says Matthews.

“More integration of GPS, normal attrition of older aircraft, and growth in the fractional and overall corporate markets will sustain improvements in corporate accident rates,” he says, adding: “Fleet changes will bring at least temporary challenges, but fleet change will continue to be the source of major net improvements in safety.”

On the other hand, Matthews says, the results are not as positive in what the FAA labels the business aviation sector, where there is a greater fleet mix; many pilots flying the aircraft are not professional aviators; there is less – if any – organisational support; and more operations are conducted under visual flight rules (VFR).

In the four years from 2002 to 2005, according to FAA data and definitions, there were 69 fatal business aviation accidents versus four in the corporate sector; there were 20 business sector approach and landing accidents versus two in corporate; there were 16 in-flight loss-of -control accidents versus none in corporate; 15 business sector aircraft suffered controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) compared with two in corporate; there were 10 loss of control accidents during take-off and initial climb in business aviation and none among corporate operators; 11 of the business sector accidents occurred under VFR at night, compared with none in corporate operations; and there were nine VFR business sector fatal accidents in instrument meteorological conditions and none in corporate.

VLJ impact

Matthews believes the arrival of VLJs may affect safety statistics in business and corporate aviation operations, and predicts: “VLJs will probably bring net improvements to accident rates. But, depending on the pace of fleet penetration and who is flying, we are likely to see an increase in the number of accidents, at least in the early days.”

In the FAA’s loose definition, he says, a VLJ “typically will offer four to six seats, including the crew; weights will range from 7,500lb [3,400kg] to 9,500lb; VLJs will have service ceilings of 25,000-41,000ft [9,100-14,950m], with a range of 1,830-3,000km [1,000-1,600nm]. They will be highly automated with multifunction displays, advanced flight management systems, real-time weather displays, state-of-the-art jet engine reliability, and the latest avionics and navigation systems with moving maps, terrain warning and traffic alerting systems.”

 
© Empics   
This Cessna Citation V crashed on approach to Pueblo, the only fatal corporate accident to a US registered aircraft in 2005

A major advantage of VLJs from the safety point of view, Matthews says, is that they will have even more reliable engines than present aircraft, and a guaranteed positive rate of climb on one engine. The latter will be a major advance over some of the twin-engined piston-powered aircraft and turboprops that VLJs are expected to replace in the market. The fact that VLJs will all be delivered with terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) and traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), plus integrated navigation/weather displays, and that manufacturer-approved training will come as part of the purchase package, will all be positive factors, he says, adding that a review of fatal accidents “shows these characteristics could have helped to avoid half of all fatal Part 135 [on-demand charter/air taxi] accidents in past 10 years”.

Matthews says the risks associated with VLJs – albeit unquantifiable – centre on the safety of single-pilot jets flown under Part 91 by owner-pilots upgrading from slower types, and the potential for large increases in Part 135 operations using VLJs with only one pilot. “Things happen faster at 275kt [510km/h] or 300kt, making it important for the pilot to stay even further ahead of the aircraft than in 125kt types,” he says. Another risk is that pilots not used to operating under IFR at high altitude alongside large aircraft will be doing it regularly, making it more difficult for ATC and for the pilots to manage their flightdeck automation in busy airspace.

With the introduction of this new class of aircraft, warns Matthews, the industry might have to brace itself for “a relatively high accident rate early”. But the paradoxical result of a rapid growth in VLJs, he forecasts, is a safer system measured by rates even if there is a greater number of accidents. The biggest single concern to the FAA, Matthews says, is single-pilot jets, especially in Part 135 operations. He warns this could provide a real problem for the image of the business/corporate aviation sector if the early accident rate is high. The industry and FAA are working together to try to minimise the risks. Aware of the problems they could face if accidents result in a crisis of confidence, the manufacturers are providing added-value pilot training as a part of the purchase package.

This goes wider than just VLJ manufacturers. Bombardier, which is not in the VLJ sector – yet – last year launched a new pilot training package for all buyers of its Learjet and Challenger series products. Known as “Leading Edge”, the programme focuses on added-value training that some corporate pilots would never receive in even high-quality training courses that meet all the FAA requirements. Bombardier describes the focus as being “a human-centred approach that concentrates on developing the human half of the man-machine interface”.

Developed with Dr Tony Kern, president of Convergent Knowledge Solutions and a former professor at the US Air Force Academy, the Leading Edge programme is based on the philosophies and techniques Bombardier has been offering for the past 10 years in its annual Safety Standdown course, plus unusual attitude and upset recovery training.

But all has not been sweetness and light in the US business and corporate safety arena. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recently slammed the FAA for lack of oversight and poor operational transparency in the jet charter market. Part 135 on-demand charter operations have been left without proper FAA safety oversight for so long, claims the NTSB, that some operators in the sector may be more prone to accidents than customers have a right to expect.

This and other radical criticisms have been added as a board member statement to the NTSB report into the 28 November 2004 crash of an Air Castle Challenger 600 just after take-off from Montrose, Colorado, in which three people died and the other three on board were seriously injured. The probable cause – as predicted in the NTSB’s factual findings soon after the accident – is that the aircraft went out of control because the wing was contaminated with snow and ice. A contributory factor was that the crew did not have recent experience of flying in such conditions.

The NTSB reported: “This accident investigation is significant for a number of reasons. It represents a whole subset of the aviation industry that is growing and that deserves more attention from us and more oversight by the FAA. While it is true that the crew’s failure to inspect the wings for contamination was the immediate cause of the accident, there were factors involved in this accident that are factors in other Part 135 air-charter operations that should be addressed before they become causal to future accidents involving air charters.”

The NTSB says the charter sector has lacked oversight since the mid-1990s, when FAA dissolved the Part 135 branch in its flight standards department. “The FAA reinstated the branch last year, but that segment of the industry went without significant FAA headquarters’ oversight for nine years, coincidentally during a time of steady growth in the industry,” says the safety board, adding that the US regulator still does not have the resources to provide proper oversight of the sector.

There are frequently complex arrangements whereby operators are doing business under a different name to that expected by the client, the NTSB explains, observing that “if federal investigators who spent months looking at this accident cannot clearly decipher the structure and relationships of the various entities associated with the certificate holder, how could consumers be expected to untangle the threads of ownership and responsibility?” Even charter brokers carrying out research on the safety of operators for clients can miss obscure irregularities, says the report, observing that in this case the Challenger was “registered to Hop-a-Jet Inc, and operated by Air Castle Corporation doing business as Global Aviation Glo-Air flight 73”.

The NTSB says that, although the FAA and Department of Transportation are working to make the charter sector more transparent, the current situation is that “under sanctioned FAA practices, certificate-holders are authorised to conduct business under other fictitious business names, or DBAs [doing business as], as long as they list the alternate names in their operations specifications”.

Learjet accidents

Meanwhile, at the same time as the NTSB released its findings on the Montrose Challenger crash, it released two more business jet accident reports. In both cases they were Bombardier Learjets operating under the Part 91 rules governing private flight. On 23 December 2003 a Pavair Learjet 24B went out of control for an undetermined reason, the NTSB says, and it hit the ground at high speed in a dive and both pilots were killed. Board members expressed concern that there is no background check on the owner/operator of the aircraft, saying: “Apparently, this same individual was granted permission by the FAA to operate under the name AFTA Inc after [a previous] accident, at the same time [as] he was being investigated for other illegal activities to which he subsequently pleaded guilty.”

On 24 October 2004 a Med Flight Air Ambulance Learjet 35A crashed into high ground while following an ATC clearance after take-off from San Bernardino airport, California. All five people on board were killed. The controller was warned twice by his minimum safe altitude warning system that the aircraft was in danger, but ignored it.

Fatigue of the flightcrew was cited as a factor, but board member comment following the report criticised the lack of recommendations concerning controller fatigue, despite the fact the duty controller had “worked an 8h shift the day before the accident, and returned 7.5h later, without any sleep, to work through the midnight shift”.

The NTSB has also recently called for urgent action from the FAA over a series of high-altitude, dual-engine flameouts involving Beechcraft Beechjet 400 business jets. The latest incident took place in July, when a Beechjet 400 operated by fractional provider Flight Options suddenly lost power while descending from 41,000ft to 33,000ft in IMC. The pilots were able to restart one of the Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D-5s and land safely. In another incident, in November, another Beechjet 400 had to make a deadstick landing after dual engine failure during a descent from 38,000ft.

The safety board points to P&W’s own investigation into the flameouts, which revealed that with engine anti-icing turned off it was possible for ice to build up on the leading edges of the low-pressure compressor stator, leading to compressor surge and/or flameout. The suggestion is that ice crystals melt as they enter the engine then re-freeze on the stator blades. The NTSB wants the FAA to work with engine and aircraft manufacturers to “actively pursue research to develop an ice detector that would alert pilots to internal engine icing”.

Now the world waits to see if the much-heralded reliability of the new generation of engines in VLJs will suffer from unpredicted foibles such as internal icing under special circumstances. Human factors may not be the only issues clouding what looks like a bright future for these fast, affordable aircraft. ■