The imminent arrival of very light jets threatens topile more pressure on business aviation to get itshouse in order on safety
The numbers of high-profile accidents involving business aircraft last year and this year are worrying industry. They raise concerns within the industry and highlight the difference in safety records between company-owned corporate aircraft, commercially operated air taxis and charters and the many owner-flown aircraft used for business.
In the meantime, from next year the industry will have to be ready for a step change in private jet transport. For a little more than $1 million, Eclipse Aviation’s six-seat Eclipse 500 twinjet will put jet performance within the reach of many more owners than can afford today’s lowest-price business jets, as well as potentially expanding the air-taxi market by making personal point-to-point travel measurably cheaper.
Far more jets will fly with single pilots than do now, says Robert Matthews of the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Accident Investigation. While he has high hopes for the benefits the new technology in these aircraft will bring, Matthews is cautious about “temporary issues with the new aircraft transition into the [business] fleet”.
Very light jets (VLJ) such as the Eclipse have raised the spectre of pilots – particularly owner-flyers – buying a jet for the first time and finding themselves lagging their aircraft because they are not ready for the increase in the speed at which everything happens. Recognising this as a real issue, the FAA and VLJ manufacturers have come up with a training programme that seems to have pleased most people, particularly the insurance industry.
Meanwhile, the public perception of business aviation safety has become a sensitive issue. The recent spate of accidents – both fatal crashes and serious non-fatal events – involving aircraft types used in business aviation has worried the corporate sector because most of the accidents involved air taxi operators or on-demand charter aircraft operating under Part 135 rules (see panel below).
The issue came to a head when an article headlined “Flight of fear” appeared in the May issue of influential US business magazine Forbes. The NBAA protested that the story gave a false picture of safety standards in the air-taxi and corporate charter markets because “it lumps together single-engine piston-powered charter flights in Alaska with multi-engine charter jet operations, which have a significantly better safety record”. But the fact that Forbes ran the story signals awareness outside the industry that recent safety performance has not been as good as it should be.
Public confusion about the various forms business aviation takes is understandable. Businesses that neither operate their own corporate aircraft nor have shares in a fractional ownership programme often charter aircraft from air-taxi or other on-demand operators, and it is this sector that has seen most of the accidents involving turbine-powered aircraft. But in the public’s eye this is still “business travel” in “business jets”.
The FAA, however, makes a distinction between corporate aviation – company-owned, professionally flown aircraft – and business aviation – those who use commercially and privately operated aircraft in the pursuit of their business. The latter category includes many owner-flyers who may be adequately qualified, but are not professional pilots.
There were more serious accidents involving business jets in 2004 than the previous year, says Robert Breiling, who conducts safety analyses for the NBAA. The four jet crashes last year all involved air-taxi/charter operations and not corporate/executive flights, he says. In early October, Breiling released his assessment of the first nine months of this year, declaring the number of fatalities in turbine-powered business aircraft of all types had increased by 80% compared with the same period in 2004.
One of the accidents involved a corporate jet operation in which eight people were killed. But Breiling says turboprop accidents accounted for 28 fatalities in the period, compared with seven in the first nine months of 2004. There were no accidents involving fractional ownership operators in either year, he says.
When Forbes published its story, the NBAA was quick to point out how extensively regulated charter and air-taxi operators are. In the USA, air taxis operate under more demanding Part 135 commercial rules, whereas company-owned corporate aircraft operate under the Part 91 regulations governing private aviation.
In jet-powered air taxis, there must be a crew of two pilots, but a single pilot is allowed to fly a twin-turboprop charter. Corporate Part 91 operators normally exceed the minimum requirements, using crewing standards equivalent to those required of major airlines. In Europe, business jets flown as corporate aircraft are required to be crewed by two pilots, whereas in the USA they usually are, but do not have to be.
Giving a general review of trends and issues at the Flight Safety Foundation’s corporate aviation safety seminar earlier this year, the FAA’s Matthews summed up the situation: “Corporate aviation has a good story to tell [and] that story will get even better in the future. The story is not as strong in business aviation, but there too the trends are good and will continue to improve.”
Matthews believes that “fleet turnover and new aircraft capabilities” will be the most influential factors in improving future corporate aviation safety. For example, terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) would probably have prevented four of the five corporate aircraft accidents since 2000 that have involved controlled flight into terrain, he says. In addition to TAWS, Matthews says new-build aircraft will be equipped with integrated GPS-based navigation systems that can deliver required navigation performance capability for safer, more accurate approaches and departures.
Taking the three-year period 2002-4, says Matthews, business aviation suffered 59 fatal accidents versus three in the corporate sector. The background to this, he says, is that in the wider business sector there is a greater fleet mix, professional pilots are not normally used to fly the aircraft, there is “less if any organisational support”, and the pilots rely more on visual flight rules flying. Yet fleet renewal will also help in the business sector, Matthews says: “New turboprops and microjets should influence the business fleet more than the corporate fleet, although both will be affected.”
The industry sector most apprehensive about the advent of VLJs is air traffic control. Eurocontrol has been quick to express its fears, although as production ramps up over the next five years, most of the fleet will operate in US skies. Alex Hendriks, head of Eurocontrol’s airspace, flow management and navigation department, says that, if orders justify, Eclipse alone could be producing four aircraft a day by 2007.
This kind of growth, if it materialises, will put a demand on air navigation service providers that they have not planned for.
And because jets are at their most efficient at high altitudes, VLJ pilots will be filing flight plans for the same upper airspace as airlines. This will be the first time that general-aviation aircraft in large numbers have bid for their share of this airspace. Turboprops have never posed a problem because they can operate efficiently below 29,000ft, while business jets have never operated in such numbers as to challenge air traffic management capacity.
Hendrik likens the phenomenon to the rise of European low-cost carriers, but says this was rendered manageable by the post-9/11 slump in flights by the traditional airlines. There will be no such offset for the VLJs, he says.
There have been at least 11 accidents involving business jets and turboprops in the USA since the beginning of 2004. The number of accidents, some of them high profile, have put corporate, charter and air taxi safety in the public spotlight. Recent accidents include:
4 August 2005, Mitsubishi MU-2B, Centennial airport, Denver, Colorado: 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, University Park airport, 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, Teterboro airport, New Jersey: 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.
16 January 2005, Cessna 560 Citation, Pueblo, Colorado: loss of control on final approach, probably icing-related. All eight occupants on the Circuit City Stores corporate flight were killed.
10 December 2004, Mitsubishi MU-2B, near Centennial airport, Denver, Colorado: soon after take-off for an air-taxi flight, the pilot reported he was shutting down an engine and returning. While manoeuvring to return, the pilot appears to have lost control of the aircraft, and both he and the pilot-rated passenger were killed.
28 November 2004, Bombardier Challenger 600, Montrose County airport, Colorado: loss of control immediately after unstick from the runway in snowy conditions. The Castle Air chartered aircraft had not been de-iced before take-off. The captain, flight attendant and one of the three passengers were killed; the co-pilot and two passengers badly injured.
22 November 2004, Gulfstream III, Houston Hobby airport, Texas: the Business Jet Services aircraft crashed after it hit a light pole about 5km south of the airport on an ILS approach. Approach control had warned the pilot he was low. Both pilots and the flight attendant were killed. There were no passengers.
24 October 2004, Beech King Air 200, Martinsville, Virginia: the Hendrick Motorsports corporate flight hit high ground during a missed approach. Both pilots and all eight passengers were killed.
24 October 2004, Bombardier Learjet 35A, near Brown Field, San Diego, California:
the Med Flight Air Ambulance crew was flying a four-sector day. On the final sector, the aircraft left Brown Field shortly after midnight for a positioning flight having dropped off a patient. It hit high ground while still operating under visual flight rules (VFR) awaiting an instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance. It had been cleared to climb to 5,000ft (1,520m), but hit terrain at 2,300ft. All five people on board were killed.
13 June 2004, Beech King Air 200, Rupert, West Virginia: on a positioning flight under VFR in instrument meteorological conditions, the aircraft hit high ground in the cruise. The crew had filed an IFR flight plan, but did not activate it. Both pilots were killed.
31 January 2004, Beech King Air C90, Homestead, Florida: the instrument-rated pilot lost control of the aircraft in turbulent cloud. The aircraft structure failed from overstress before impact. The pilot and passenger were killed in the accident.