Pilot training essential to improve MU-2 safety

 - September 15, 2006, 8:40 AM

MU-2 operators can expect to have to complete a more stringent flight-training program, similar to a type rating, as a result of the FAA’s inquiry into the aircraft’s safety record. The new training likely to be required was one of the subjects of the recent 2006 MU-2 Pilots Review of Proficiency (Prop) seminar.

The record 140 attendees–operators, maintainers and loyal fans of the Mitsubishi MU-2–at the Richmond, Va., event also celebrated the airplane’s 40th anniversary; the first customer MU-2 took to U.S. skies in 1966, and during the airplane’s 20-year production run, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries delivered 703 MU-2s.

There are 311 MU-2s left in the U.S., 23 in Europe, 32 in South America, 13 in Canada, four in Australia and a few in other parts of the world. Worldwide, the MU-2 fleet totals 396, not including another 40 MU-2s operated by the Japanese Defense Agency for patrol and search-and-rescue missions.

Judging from the attendees at the Richmond Prop seminar, the MU-2 remains a popular owner-flown and corporate turboprop. A number of MU-2s are still used in cargo and charter operations. Users say they chose the MU-2 for the strength of its airframe, reliable Honeywell TPE331 engines and superior performance compared to other turboprops.

One of the most important factors for operators is Mitsubishi’s continued strong support of an airplane that has been out of production for 20 years. This is confirmed by AIN’s 2005 Product Support Survey, in which respondents ranked Mitsubishi highest overall for factory support of older turboprops.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America (MHIA) and its contractor, Turbine Aircraft Services of Addison, Texas, provide support. Six authorized service centers are located in the U.S.

MHIA and Turbine Air Services have been running the Prop seminars since 1994. Generally, they are held every two years in the U.S. and at other times in Europe. The free seminars are open to any MU-2 operator or anyone interested in operating an MU-2. They are also a convenient way for MU-2 pilots to obtain the biennial icing-awareness training required by airworthiness directive 2003-22-07. At the seminar, the icing training was offered twice to make sure everyone could attend.

Flight-safety Review

Last year, political inquiries into the safety of the MU-2 resulted in the FAA’s convening a flight standardization board (FSB) to address questions raised after a series of MU-2 accidents. Three FAA teams spent 11 days and 60 hours flying the MU-2, and the result, according to information provided at the Prop seminar, was that the “FSB concludes [that] with reasonable training, [an] average pilot can operate the MU-2 safely if operated within AFM guidelines.”

A preliminary FSB report was released in January. Since then, the FAA and MHIA have been developing a training program and standardized checklists that will be mandatory for all MU-2 operators. Turbine Aircraft Services president Pat Cannon, a 10,000-hour MU-2 pilot, summarized the latest developments in the training program and checklist for Prop attendees.

The training program will be mandated through a soon-to-be-published special FAR (SFAR) and via the FSB report. For Part 91 pilots, training will be mandated via the SFAR. For Part 135 MU-2 pilots, the FSB report will be the guiding document for mandatory training, although single-pilot Part 135 operators will also comply with the SFAR.

As of late May, the FAA and MHIA were still reviewing the checklists. The approved checklists, Cannon noted, will be mandatory for all MU-2 pilots, and MHIA will issue revisions to checklists as necessary.

A highlight of this year’s Prop seminar was a presentation by Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator and aircraft safety consultant who was tasked with researching the MU-2 accident history.

“I wanted to look at the MU-2 from an independent perspective,” Feith told the seminar attendees. Feith, who holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 3,000 hours, wanted to fly the MU-2, but he didn’t obtain formal training such as attending an initial MU-2 class at training provider SimCom. Because part of his research was to explore some of the myths surrounding the MU-2’s flying characteristics, he spent a few hours flying the MU-2 with Cannon. Feith stalled the MU-2, flew it at low speed and tried 45-degree banks into the dead engine during single-engine operations.

“Is the MU-2 a dangerous airplane?” he asked. “A lot of people think it is. Why is the airplane perceived to be dangerous?”

Feith examined 212 MU-2 accidents and incidents (which he amended to 214 during the course of his research) since 1968. One problem he found is that NTSB conclusions don’t always include pertinent information that an accident investigation might have uncovered. He added, “Probable-cause statements are not always right. The good stuff is in the core of the report.” Because the information needed to perform root-cause analysis wasn’t always available, Feith wasn’t able to develop a comprehensive statistical analysis, but he did glean useful information about MU-2 accidents.

“There were a lot of what I call ‘one-offs,’” he said. For example, in one case, a person on the ground ran into the propeller while an MU-2 engine was running. That counts, perhaps unfairly, as a fatal MU-2 accident. During a briefing of FAA personnel last December, Feith asked those assembled if they had plans to ground the Boeing 737, which during a recent 90-day period suffered five accidents and 500 fatalities. “Nobody has written articles about how bad the 737 is,” he commented. “Statistics lie and they give you a false impression.”

The MU-2 is often compared to the Beech King Air. Feith found that there were 164 King Air (models 90 and 200) accidents and incidents versus 214 for the
MU-2. About 80 percent of the King Air events and 72 percent of the MU-2 events were attributable to human error. Of course, thousands more King Airs have been built than MU-2s. “The NTSB,” he said, “never found anything wrong in the [MU-2’s] design or manufacture. Where I found a lot of accident [causes], pilots didn’t have a good tactile sense of the airplane.”

Feith looked at recent accidents in more depth. Between 1996 and 2005, there were 41 MU-2 events, 18 of which involved fatalities. According to Feith, “15 of the 18 accidents had causal factors related to the pilot’s basic airmanship skills.”

In those fatal accidents, 16 of the pilots learned in MU-2s without any training in a flight-training device, primarily during “in-house” training with their operator. Some of the pilots, he added, never received any MU-2 training and two attended training at FlightSafety International “but did not complete the program satisfactorily.” The common denominator, he said, is airmanship.

The MU-2, Feith said, “has had a bad reputation, but there is no basis in fact.” Safety, he added, “starts with the pilot and ends with the pilot. Pilot issues can be fixed to some extent with training.”

The training issue is next on the MU-2 community’s agenda because the FAA FSB report and upcoming SFAR will mandate both initial and recurrent pilot training. This requirement is one step short of a type rating, which is required for airplanes weighing more than 12,500 pounds or powered by jet engines.

MU-2 training falls into three categories: requalification, initial/transition and recurrent. Requalification training applies to any pilot with documented MU-2 experience in the past two years who hasn’t met the requirements for recurrent training. Most current MU-2 pilots will enter at the requalification stage.

Initial/transition training is required for pilots without any documented MU-2 pilot experience in the past two years.

All MU-2 pilots must do recurrent training every 12 calendar months. Those who miss the 12-month cutoff will have to requalify.

Each training level has minimum hours requirements. Initial training is 20 hours ground and 12 hours flight instruction (six can be in an approved FTD and six in
the airplane). Requalification calls for 12 hours of ground instruction and eight hours of flying (all of which can be in an FTD). For recurrent training, pilots need eight hours of ground and either four hours in the airplane or six hours in the FTD. An MU-2 FTD must meet Level 5 standards with a visual system and authentic MU-2 cockpit.

Training program content is specified and includes items such as aircraft systems and performance, controlled flight into terrain, icing and single-pilot resource management. Part 91 pilots will have to complete a final phase check during their training, which isn’t the same as a flight test but will be done to commercial
multi-engine FAA practical test standards.

Part 135 pilots will continue with normal 135.293, .297 and .299 check rides with a qualified check airman or FAA inspector. Examiners and check airmen must be current in the MU-2 and have 100 hours of MU-2 flight time.

MU-2 flight instructors also must meet new standards, with at least 2,000 hours total time, 800 multi-engine, 300 PIC MU-2 and 50 hours in the MU-2 in the last 12 months.

The FSB report will emphasize certain training areas on the MU-2, including accelerated stall awareness, VMC awareness, icing knowledge and knowledge of certification standards for performance. Turbine Aircraft’s Cannon strongly recommends training in the FTD for icing awareness because, he said, “we can load you up with ice.” The VMC demo can also be done more effectively in the FTD, with pilots able to experience slowing down to VMC, whereas in the airplane, the recommendation will be to slow to VMC+10 with the instructor blocking a rudder pedal to simulate the loss of rudder effectiveness.

An important focus of MU-2 training will be helping pilots to adopt standard operating procedures. “This gives you an extra margin of safety,” said Tom Goonen, coordinator at SimCom.

“Airplanes are like people,” said Feith. “They all have their little idiosyncrasies. You have to understand those characteristics. You’re only as good as the training.”