Global business aviation safety performance in 2015 appears to have improved on the previous year – but more because 2014 was a poor year than because 2015 was good. And hiding behind comforting statistics that show fatal accident risks are falling, there are disconcerting signs that specific safety issues, such as runway excursion, are not being taken seriously by operators and their crews.
It is also important to bear in mind that fatal accident figures are only the visible “tip of the iceberg”: the number of non-fatal accidents causing damage classified by the insurance industry as “major” or “total” is far larger.
Long-term trends in fatal accident rates for both business jets and turboprops may be improving, but growth in the fleet means accident totals are not coming down, so perceptions of safety in the sector do not benefit as they should. There has been no real reduction in the frequency of fatal accidents suffered by these classes of aircraft – or in the numbers of passengers and crew killed each year – in the past 20 years.
Perceptions can affect the success of the sector. It is impossible to say how many businesspeople who could make use of business aviation are nervous fliers preferring airline travel and larger aircraft because they see it as safer. In fact comparisons with the top end of business aviation – corporate jet operations – show little difference in risk.
Last year 33 passengers and crew died in the seven fatal accidents suffered by business jets. This compares with 54 passengers and crew who died in the 12 fatal accidents in 2014, and 23 in the eight fatal accidents in 2013. Looking at the longer-term indicators, the annual average number of fatalities so far in this decade is now 28.2, compared with the previous decade’s average of 23.4 – but these are both an improvement on the 1990s average of 35.9.
In business turboprops, a total of 42 passengers and crew died in ten fatal accidents last year. 2015’s result is similar to 2014’s, when 39 people were killed in 12 fatal accidents, and better than 2013 when 62 passengers and crew died in 17 accidents. The annual average number of passenger and crew deaths for this decade so far is 44.3. The figure for the 2000s is 49.8, and for the 1990s, 58.1.
This analysis is based mainly on the Flightglobal Ascend analytical report Business Aviation Safety and Losses 2015. The report includes all business jets that were designed as such, and excludes the “airliner types” that may be used as VIP or corporate aircraft. The study also includes all turboprop twins used in the role, and two single-engined turboprop types, the Pilatus PC-12 and Daher TBM 700/900. Trip numbers are difficult to determine in most of the world but fleet numbers are known, so rates are calculated according to the numbers of accidents befalling each type against the numbers in that fleet – a reliable estimate of exposure to risk.
Moving on from accident numbers to rates, the fatal accident rate for business jets in 2015 was about one per 2,500 aircraft, an improvement on the figure of one per 1,430 aircraft in 2014 and one per 2,000 aircraft in 2013. The best year for the class was 2011, when the rate was one per 5,000 aircraft (see graph).
Despite the recent wobble in the year-on-year accident rates, the figures for 2015 are basically in line with the long-term trend, which has seen the fatal accident rate more than halve since the 1990s. The business jet fatal accident rate for the decade of the 2000s was one per 1,600 aircraft, and for the decade of the 1990s, one per 900 aircraft.
Business turboprop safety performance also improved in 2015 with a fatal accident rate of about one per 1,430 aircraft. This compares with one per 1,100 aircraft in 2015 and one per 770 aircraft in 2013. The annual average for the decade of the 2000s was about one per 700 aircraft, and for the 1990s the figure was one per 500 aircraft – so has been a striking improvement over the past 25 years.
Although it may be comforting to note that the accident rates for both business jets and turboprops are improving, the fatal accident rate for business jets is still far better than that for turboprops. In round numbers the accident rate for business jets is about twice as good as that for turboprops, and this has shown little change over at least the last 25 years. Turboprop operators should perhaps ask themselves why they cannot reproduce the jet fleet's safety figures. The presumed reasons why this discrepancy exists are many, but the biggest single influence is that crewing tends to be different. There are more owner-pilots among business turboprop users, and more single-pilot operations, whereas business jets tend to have full-time professional two-pilot crews.
In terms of simple figures rather than rates, 2015 saw business jets suffer a total of seven fatal accidents – although there were more than 30 accidents involving hull loss or major damage. The fatal accidents figure for 2015 is a much better result than 2014, when there were 12. But because 2014 was the worst year for fatal accidents since business jets first went into service in the 1960s, 2015’s apparently improved figures reveal an average year rather than a good one.
Despite recent years, the long-term trend in the annual number of fatal accidents does show slow improvement. The annual average for the current decade so far, (2010-2015), at seven fatal accidents, is slightly better than that for the previous decade (7.6) and that for the 1990s (8.2).
Business turboprops suffered 10 fatal accidents in 2015 – a relatively better result for this class. There were 12 fatal accidents in 2014, 17 in 2013 and 16 in 2012. The 2015 result brings the annual average number of fatal accidents for the current decade so far down to 12.3. The average for the previous decade was 15.5, and that for the 1990s, 16.7.
The worst accident for fatalities in 2015 involved a turboprop, an Aviajet Beechcraft King Air B90 (LV-CEO), which crashed on 19 March at Punta del Este, Uruguay, killing all eight passengers and both pilots when it plunged into a lake 500m beyond the runway just after a night take-off. The cause is not yet known.
Another turboprop accident – also occurring just after take-off – involved an Indian Border Security Force King Air B200 (VT-BSA). The crew reported a technical problem after taking off from runway 28 at Delhi’s Indira Ghandi airport on 22 December, and requested a return to the airport – but the aircraft lost height and crashed near the airfield boundary some 1,500m southwest of the threshold of Runway 10. The eight passengers and two crew were killed, and two people on the ground were seriously injured.
On 12 August a Cessna 441 (V5-NRS) twin turboprop operated by the Namibian E-Med Rescue flew into high ground while on approach to Cape Town, South Africa, killing the three passengers and two crew. It is not clear why this accident occurred.
Among the worst of the business jet accidents was the ExecuFlight Hawker 700 (N237WR) crash on 10 November, which occurred during an approach to Fulton International airport, Akron, Ohio in instrument meteorological conditions. According to the US National Transportation Safety Board the aircraft “departed controlled flight” on short final for runway 25 during a localiser approach. The seven passengers and two crew were killed when it hit an empty house at about 1.8nm short of the runway threshold.
Another serious mishap was the 5 September loss of a Senegalair Hawker 700 (6V-AIM), which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Dakar, Senegal, following a mid-air collision with a Ceiba International Boeing 737-800. Both aircraft were on airway UA601 at FL350: the Senegalair Hawker 700 had been cleared to fly at FL340. The 737 was damaged but landed safely, but the business jet – on a medevac mission – crashed, killing the four passengers and three crew.
Moving on to frequently-occurring incidents or accidents, the most common accident category for business jets is the same as for airliners – runway excursion. However, the risk is arguably even higher in this industry sector because of the variety of runways that aircraft may be exposed to at secondary airports or minor airfields. Runway overrun on landing is the most common excursion, but loss of directional control, sometimes on contaminated surfaces, also occurred frequently during 2015, as has done in previous years. In all cases last year runway excursion was expensive, but only occasionally fatal.
The most dramatic example in 2015 of a disastrous runway excursion was a high-speed runway overrun involving an Embraer Phenom 300 (HZ-IBN) that led to the deaths of the pilot and the three passengers. It occurred on 31 July at Blackbushe airfield in southeastern UK, in daylight visual meterological conditions. The Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) says the Saudi Binladin Group Phenom had a high rate of descent (2,500ft/min) as it passed through 500ft on final approach to runway 25. There was no headwind component to moderate the aircraft’s high groundspeed, but a slight crosswind from the left. The Phenom’s enhanced ground proximity warning system, according to the AAIB, generated six pull-up warnings on final approach, and it was still flying at 150kt (278km/h) indicated airspeed as it passed over the runway threshold. The manufacturer calculates 108kt would have been appropriate. The Phenom touched down at 136kt some 710m into the runway, with only 349m remaining. Beyond the end of the runway the aircraft hit a metre-high earthen bank and “briefly became airborne again” before ploughing into the commercial parking lot of British Car Auctions, destroying more than 20 cars. The aircraft was destroyed by fire when it came to a halt.
It is difficult to imagine what kind of pressure could have caused the pilot to continue with a landing attempt at a provincial aerodrome from a final approach such as this.
Among the mystery accidents of the year 2015 were two aircraft – a Banco Bradesco Cessna Citation VII (PT-WQH) en route from Brasilia to Sao Paulo in Brazil on 10 November with two senior bank executives as passengers, and a company-operated Bombardier Learjet 31 (XB-GYB) flying from Toluca to Zacatecas in Mexico on 22 October, also with two passengers. Both were lost from cruising altitude en route with no emergency call. There was convective activity where the Learjet came down, but whether this was relevant to the loss is unknown. Crash site evidence in both cases appears to indicate that the aircraft impacted the ground in a steep dive.
The pattern for turboprop accidents appears slightly different to that for jets. As a proportion of flights, the number of runway overruns for turboprops appears to be fewer than for jets – possibly reflecting the shorter landing capabilities of prop-driven aircraft – but overruns or runway excursions still happen fairly often.
Simple landing errors seem more common in the turboprop fleet, ranging from damagingly heavy landings to failure to select the gear down. Ascend data for 2015 shows at least eight known incidents in the turboprop fleet where the crew failed to extend the undercarriage for landing. Two prop-strikes on the runway during otherwise correctly-configured landings are recorded for Daher TBMs, indicating nose-down touchdowns, initially or after a bounce. There is also strong evidence that at least two US pilots of turboprop twins struggled with instrument flying, with both of them informing ATC they were hoping for VMC to land. When they were eventually forced to carry out instrument approaches in IMC, despite vectoring assistance from ATC they lost control.
So it seems that although accident rates are slowly moving downward, there is plenty for the business aviation community to work on. Things could still be better than they are.
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Source: Flight International