Fly the Airplane

 - September 15, 2006, 11:05 AM

The corporate and business aviation segments are making progress toward improving their safety record, but there is still work to be done, Dr. Robert Matthews, the FAA’s lead analyst in the office of accident investigation, told the 400 attendees at the Flight Safety Foundation’s Corporate Aviation Seminar. He told AIN, “Corporate aviation, as the FAA defines it, is about as safe as you can hope to get. Certainly we recognize that you can always improve on accident rates, but corporate aviation has a pretty good story to tell and it’s going to continue to be good. The story is not as strong in business aviation, but there, too, trends are good and will continue to improve.”

Dr. Matthews said that according to the NBAA Factbook, the organization considers business aviation and corporate aviation synonymous. The association defines both as “companies and individuals using aircraft as tools in the conduct of their business,” but the FAA and NTSB distinguish between the two.

“The government definition stresses not-for-hire transportation in each category, then distinguishes between the two based on whether flights are operated by professional [salaried] pilots,” Matthews said. “Corporate/executive aviation is any use of an aircraft by a corporation, company or other organization (not for compensation or hire) for the purpose of transporting its employees and/or property, and employing professional pilots for the operation of the aircraft.”

The FAA’s definition of business aviation is “any use of an aircraft (not for compensation or hire) by an individual for transportation required by the business in which the individual is engaged.”

Dr. Matthews explained that an analysis of corporate aviation accident and fatal accident rates from 1982 through 2005 clearly shows a steady decline in both categories from 40 and six, respectively,

in 1982 down to four and one in 2005. “Over approximately the same time period it is also obvious that system, powerplant and fuel-related accidents have all declined significantly but weather-related accidents consistently remain the primary threat to corporate flight operations.

“There are many factors that can be traced to the improved accident and fatal accident rates in corporate aviation, including improvements in ATC services, weather forecasting, dissemination of weather, avionics, powerplants (turbofans, turboprops and reciprocating) and GPS-based navigation,” Dr. Matthews said. “When you take a hard look at those factors it stands out that, similar to the air carrier safety record improvement, the biggest factor is probably major upgrades in the fleet. Modern aircraft are simply built better and have better, more reliable systems and powerplants.”

Dr. Matthews added that business aviation doesn’t have quite as good a story to tell as corporate aviation. He explained that by mentioning that business aviation’s “fleet is mixed, by definition the aircraft are not operated by professional [salaried] pilots and those pilots have less, if any, organizational support. Business aviation pilots also statistically tend to fly more VFR.”

According to FAA statistics for the period from 2002 to 2005, business aviation suffered 69 fatal accidents versus four in corporate aviation, and the statistics are telling. Business aviation had 20 approach and landing fatal accidents versus two in corporate aviation. It also had 16 loss-of-control accidents in flight versus zero for corporate. Business aviation suffered 15 CFIT versus two in corporate aviation; 10 loss of control on takeoff/climb-out versus none; 11 VFR at night versus zero; and nine VFR in instrument conditions versus zero in corporate.

During an opening session address, Ed Bolen, NBAA president and CEO, also focused on the corporate aviation safety record. He commended the foundation on its Corporate Flight Operations Quality Assurance (C-FOQA) program. “To be a viable form of transportation safety has to be a given. For over 10 years the foundation has been a vigorous FOQA advocate,” he said.

FOQA involves the collection and analysis of data recorded during flight to improve the safety of flight operations, ATC procedures, and airport and aircraft design and maintenance. Data collected in a FOQA program is of the same types stored by digital flight data recorders for accident-investigation purposes but can be downloaded frequently from quick-access recorders.

The FSF was a driving force for FOQA, holding workshops in 1989 and 1990 that became the basis for implementation of FOQA programs worldwide. In 1993, under contract to the FAA, the foundation published findings of a study that has served as the blueprint for FOQA progress in the U.S.

Renew Emphasis on Flying the Airplane
In “Cockpit Automation: Are pilots becoming too dependent?” John Williams of CAE SimuFlite discussed what he called a growing, problematic reliance on automation.

“The simulator is an excellent tool for highlighting aircrew strengths and deficiencies in any number of areas, including systems knowledge, crew resource management [CRM] and the handling of emergency situations,” Williams said. “What many times throws aircrews for a loop (no pun intended) is associated failures in their advanced avionics and automated systems. This can serve to highlight a couple of issues of growing concern; first, they might not fully understand how their advanced automations work, and second, they might be unable to function without them.”

Williams said that in the simulator, aircrews consistently demonstrate that even when in a low-altitude environment within the airport traffic pattern in a busy and stressful environment, their priorities have shifted from flying the aircraft to managing their advanced avionics and automation.

“Aircrew heads are down in the cockpit punching buttons rather than outside scanning for other aircraft and doing what is taught at the beginning of flight training: fly the aircraft!” he said. “There also seems to be a gap between pilots’ understanding of the advanced automation and avionics’ behavior, and the actual behavior of that equipment. As that gap widens, so does the reaction time it takes for a pilot to intervene when the equipment malfunctions or acts contrary to the pilot’s expectations. In fact, the pilot might not even see or notice that he has a problem. This can lead to increased workload in the cockpit.”

Safety Starts with a Good Hire
Jodie Brown, president of Summit Solutions, believes a safe operation hinges on hiring the right person. In “Raising the probability of success in hiring,” Brown suggested that hiring decisions are critical to protecting passengers and crew.
Brown explained that flight departments have historically hired for experience and skill rather than potential (ability and attitude), but she cautions that potential is much more important in the long run.

“Reading the message between the words in the questioning process (full versus half truths) and listening for clues that indicate whether the candidate might be resting on his or her laurels, has a good safety record, is a team or individual player, and so on, is very important.”

She told AIN that it is important for hiring managers to recognize the complexity of the hiring process and advised them to consider “why we are looking for some specific thing such as the number of turbine flight hours. Are we looking for someone to fly the aircraft we have today? Are we going to be changing it? Are we looking for someone with a lot of experience or are we looking for someone with a lot of ability? And how do we even measure ability?”

Operators Make Way for the VLJs
The FAA’s Dr. Robert Matthews addressed the impending infusion of the very light jet (VLJ) into the mix. “The primary risk with VLJs will be early in its history,” he said. “Just like any other example of a new aircraft produced in large numbers, there’s going to be a learning curve; we can see it throughout aviation history.”

VLJs currently being developed offer impressive statistics for the private owner-operator. They are being built as four- to six-seat aircraft including crew. The weights of the VLJs range from 7,500 to 9,500 pounds, with service ceilings ranging from 25,000 feet to 41,000 and ranges from 1,200 to 1,800 nm. And that sort of performance is available for the relatively inexpensive price of $1.4 to $2.7 million.
“But historically each new aircraft has a shorter learning curve; it stabilizes at a relatively low accident rate more and more quickly than preceding generations, and we expect the same thing to happen with the VLJs. In the long run there should be an improvement to the overall accident rate,” Matthews said.

Matthews noted it was the characteristics of the very light jets that will make a big difference in the airplanes’ improving the accident record in the long run.

“The fact alone that it is jet powered, with the engine reliability that you get from jet certification, will make a difference,” he said. “Then consider the software that these aircraft are going to be coming on line with. They will have TCAS and TAWS-like functions. They’ll also be able to sustain flight and maintain a positive climb rate on a single engine. When you compare that to the typical accident causes we’ve seen [with small twin-engine aircraft] over the years, that’s going to be a significant improvement.”

However, Matthews expressed concern that the VLJ will likely attract more first-time turbine pilots. “Those individuals who decide to operate the VLJ themselves for business use are unlikely to have the kind of company support that a corporate flight department offers,” he cautioned.

“They’ll have to deal with flight planning, weather gathering and interpretation, high-altitude operations at higher speeds, most likely single-pilot operation in high density environments and so on. That in itself will result in some pretty high accident rates. Hopefully, those issues will be overcome quickly and the higher accident rates will be short term.”

Dr. Matthews said he was convinced that VLJs will find a big market in personal and business aviation and perhaps even scheduled commuter services. While demand for VLJs by the corporate market as defined by the FAA might be relatively small, he suggests the VLJ might bring new companies into corporate aviation.

“I also see VLJs revolutionizing the on-demand Part 135 passenger service, but I’m troubled by the possibility of single-pilot, Part 135 VLJ operations,” he said. “Having said that, a review of the fatal accidents shows the very characteristics that the VLJs bring to the market could have helped to avoid about half of all fatal Part 135 accidents in the past 10 years. The OEMs are really getting out ahead of the safety issue by offering state-of-the-art equipment and systems, manufacturer training and even real-time flight monitoring. But there is certainly a downside to the new class of aircraft.

“Make no mistake about it, single-pilot operation under Part 91 with light aircraft pilots moving up to a VLJ will result in an increased accident rate at least early on,” Dr. Matthews warned. “It’s a simple fact of life: things happen faster at 300 knots than they do at 125. And for many it will be the first time they’ve had to operate at high altitude intermingled with large aircraft. Then there are the terminal area issues: managing automation in busy airspace is challenging. I think it’s safe to say there will be a fairly high accident rate in the early days.”