Business aviation's safety Achilles heel, like that of the airlines, seems to be loss of control in flight (LOC-I). That was true in 2016 and 2017, and it looks as if this year – with three months yet to run – is going the same way too.
LOC-I is not the most common category of business and corporate aviation accident, but it is the cause of the most serious crashes – almost inevitably fatal. This year so far, the USA, in particular, has seen several business aviation LOC-I accidents, and Latin America suffered several the previous year. European business aviation, on the other hand, has had a particularly safe year in all categories, according to EASA's annual safety review for 2017.
Meanwhile, an unusual event in Utah suggests business aviation safety is no more immune from the effects of pilot mental instability than airlines are. On 13 August this year, a corporate pilot working for construction company Vancon Holdings illegally took the company Cessna 525 CitationJet from its base at Spanish Fork-Springville airport, Utah, and, according to the police, deliberately crashed it into his own home in Payson. The police had recently charged him with domestic violence. A woman and child in the damaged home were physically unharmed by the impact.
Arguably, operators of all kinds should take a security lesson from the Spanish Fork event, especially when combined with the fact that two days before, at Seattle-Tacoma airport, a mechanic stole a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 that he normally worked on, took off, flew aerobatic sequences in it, and eventually crashed the aircraft fatally. Nobody on the ground was hurt and the police have discounted any terrorist motive.
Globally, however, 2017 was an "average" year for business aviation safety performance, according to FlightGlobal's Business Aviation Safety and Losses report. Accident rates for the year were slightly up compared with 2016 and the raw numbers for fatal accidents and fatalities were slightly above the long-term trend. But the "average year" judgement is justified by the fact that the figures for 2017 fall within the bounds of the annual peaks and troughs in fatal accident numbers over the past decade or so.
Year on year, the numbers of fatal accidents both to jets and turboprops in 2017 was up compared with the previous year, but then 2016 was a particularly good year. The respective figures in 2017 were six compared with four for jets, and 15 against nine for turboprops. That turboprop figure is the worst since 2012, and was last equalled in 2013, but a small growth in aircraft numbers means that the turboprop fleet fatal accident rate has actually decreased slightly compared with the 2013 figure.
As for business jet fatal accident rates (accident numbers judged against the number of aircraft in service – see graph), rather than simple accident numbers, in 2017 the rate was one fatal accident per 3,350 aircraft in service, whereas in 2016 it looked much better at one fatal accident per 5,000 aircraft in service. But the exponential curves applied to both business jet and turboprop fatal accident rates continue to show a shallow downward trend, although they are levelling. For perspective, however, a glance back to the 2000s shows the business jet fatal accident rate was one crash per 1,600 aircraft, and in the 1990s it was one per 900 airframes.
The rates for fatal business turboprop accidents leapt up in 2017 from one fatal crash per 650 aircraft, compared with one in 1,100 aircraft the previous year. Again, for perspective, the annual average for the 2000s was one fatal mishap for every 525 aircraft, compared with the 1990s figure of one per 430 airframes.
There has always been a disparity between the figures for turboprops and jets, mostly believed to result from the fact that business jets are more likely to be flown by professional pilots – often a crew of two, whereas many company turboprops are predominantly flown by a single pilot who is often also the aircraft owner.
FlightGlobal director of air safety Paul Hayes reports that, despite the fact that safety performance in both categories is improving over time, the safety performance disparity between jets and turboprops is growing. He explains: "In round numbers, the fatal accident rate for business jets is now about three to four times better than that for turboprops, and this difference in rate has been steadily increasing. In 1990, the business jet fatal accident rate was about twice as good as that for the turboprops."
In recognition of this, the National Business Aviation Association has been running a “single pilot safety stand-down” at its annual convention for the past 10 years and will also be running one at the show this year.
In terms of loss of life, the two most disastrous business aircraft accidents in the period from the beginning of 2017 until now both involved sophisticated business jets: a Venezuelan government-operated Gulfstream III in August last year and a corporate Bombardier Challenger 604 over Iran in March this year. In both cases the crew declared a technical problem. In the case of the Gulfstream the crew reported a hydraulic fault during their descent towards their destination, and said they were having problems with the controls. The aircraft crashed into the sea, killing all nine people on board. The Challenger crew did not describe the technical problem but requested a lower altitude. The aircraft was seen to climb a couple of thousand feet from its cruising level at 36,000ft, then entered a rapid descent to impact, and all eleven people on board died.
Apart from the observation that LOC-I accidents are proving just as much a scourge in business aviation as they are for the airlines, it is difficult at this stage to see a causal pattern in the recent crashes because final reports are, in almost all cases, still awaited.
The airline solution, apart from providing refresher training in upset prevention and recovery for pilots, includes looking for ways of boosting crew "resilience" in the face of distractions. The distractions could be technical problems, or factors like weather, but the concern is that so many of the LOC-I events have started with a distraction, often at night or in instrument meteorological conditions, and resulted in apparent crew disorientation or loss of situational awareness, leading to the loss of an aircraft that could have been controlled.
The worst business aviation fatal accidents in 2017 and so far in 2018
19 January King Air C90GT (PR-SOM) crashed into the Baia Carioca on approach to its destination at Paraty on a short flight from Campo de Marte airport, in São Paulo, Brazil. The pilot and four passengers were killed.
21 February King Air B200 (VH-ZCR), belonging to Corporate & Leisure Charters, crashed into a commercial building shortly after take-off from runway 17 at Essendon airport, in Melbourne, Australia. The intended destination was King Island, Tasmania. According to an initial report by the Australian Transport Safety Board, witnesses said that the take-off run seemed longer than normal. The aircraft was in the normal take-off configuration, but it did not climb as would normally be expected, yawed gently left soon after take-off, reached a maximum height above the ground of 160ft, and impacted the building in a slow left turn. The pilot had made a Mayday call in which the word was repeated seven times, but no additional information was provided. Initial reports indicated both engines and propellers were capable of producing power at impact. The pilot and four passengers were killed. The ATSB is preparing the final report.
17 April Piper PA31T Cheyenne (HB-LTI), crashed shortly after take-off from Cascais airport, in Lisbon, Portugal, killing the pilot and three passengers on board and a vehicle driver on the ground. It seems there was power loss in the left engine and the pilot failed to maintain control.
4 July Gulfstream III (YV2896) operated by government agency SATA crashed into the sea towards the end of a flight from Caracas to Porlamar, Venezuela, killing the three crew and six passengers on board. The crew had reported hydraulic failure and problems maintaining control.
19 August Learjet 25 (YV3191) operated by Aeroquest crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Simón Bolívar airport, in Caracas, Venezuela just after midnight, killing the two crew and three passengers on board.
18 January Daher-Socata TBM 700 (N700VX) totally destroyed by impact and post-impact fire when it apparently went out of control and crashed during the final stage of an ILS approach to Runway 23 at Evanston, USA, coming down in scrub about 2,500m (8,200ft) short of the runway threshold. The single pilot and passenger were killed. The accident happened in daylight. Weather was icy, with snow and freezing fog. The aircraft was operating a flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
22 February Cessna 441 Conquest (N771XW) operated by Prospect Aviation was totally destroyed when it crashed in fields near Owasco, in Indiana, USA, some 20min after take-off from Eagle Creek Airpark, Indianapolis. The single pilot and both passengers were killed. The point of impact was about 80km (50 miles) north-northwest of Indianapolis. The accident happened in darkness. The aircraft was operating a flight to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Shortly after take-off the aircraft deviated from its assigned heading and altitude. When air traffic control queried this, the pilot replied that the aircraft was "out of control". He turned onto a heading of 90˚ and advised ATC that he had a "trim problem and difficulty controlling the aircraft but that he had it back to straight and level now". The flight was given a turn onto a heading of 310˚ and cleared to climb to and maintain 13,000ft. The pilot was then instructed to contact the Chicago Center. The pilot checked in with the sector controller stating that he was climbing from 10,600ft to 13,000ft and was cleared to climb to flight level 200 (20,000ft) followed by a further climb to FL230. After being told to change frequencies, the pilot transmitted that "he needed a minute to get control of the aircraft" and that he was "having difficulty with the trim". Contact with the flight was then lost.
11 March Bombardier Challenger 604 (TC-TRB), operated by Basaran Holdings was destroyed when it went out of control and crashed near Shahr-e Kord, Iran while en route from Sharjah, UAE to Istanbul, Turkey. All three crew and eight passengers were killed. Prior to the accident, the aircraft appeared to be in normal flight at FL360. It then reportedly climbed to FL377 before entering a steep dive that continued until impact with the ground. According to press reports, the crew had reported a "technical problem" and requested a lower altitude. The passengers included Mina Basaran, the daughter of Huseyin Basaran, whose business group operated the aircraft, and seven of her friends who had travelled to Dubai to celebrate Mina's forthcoming marriage. Ms Basaran was described in the press as a "wealthy Turkish socialite". Her friends were active in the fashion and design business.
15 April Cessna CitationJet CJ1 (N525P) crashed into high ground near Crozet, Virginia, USA. It was night, but no flightplan was filed for the local flight from Richmond to Staunton in the same state. The radar trace indicates that the aircraft hit the ground in a descending left turn. The pilot, the only person on board, died in the crash.
28 June Hawker Beechcraft King Air 90 (VT-UPZ) was destroyed by impact and post-impact fire when it crashed on a building site in the Ghatkopar district of Mumbai, India, apparently while returning to Juhu Airport, Mumbai following a post-maintenance test flight. The two crew and two aircraft engineers on board died in the crash and one person on the ground was killed. The accident happened in daylight.
29 July Hawker Beechcraft King Air 90 (PP-SZN) operated by CISA Trading destroyed by impact and post-impact fire when it crashed inverted following an attempted landing at Campo de Marte Airport, in São Paulo, Brazil. There are suggestions that the pilot reported problems with the landing gear, and the aircraft made two passes over the runway before attempting a landing. The accident happened in daylight. The aircraft was operating a flight from Videira, in Santa Catarina, Brazil.