FAA requires more stringent training for MU-2 operators

 - September 21, 2006, 11:26 AM

The FAA is not planning to ground the Mitsubishi MU-2, despite a plea from Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in a letter sent June 23 last year. Nor does Mitsubishi Heavy Industries plan to issue a “voluntary recall,” as Tancredo requested in a subsequent letter dated September 29.

Tancredo’s first letter spurred an FAA effort to evaluate the safety of the MU-2, and the agency released its results in late January. A link to all of the pertinent MU-2 information, including the Safety Evaluation Report, the research and previous FAA special certification reviews of the MU-2, is available at www.faa.gov/aircraft/air_ cert/design_approvals/small_airplanes/cos/mu2_foia_reading_library/.

In his June letter Tancredo outlined his concerns resulting from the crash of an MU-2B-60 on Dec. 10, 2004, at Centennial Airport near Denver, an accident that killed the son of one of his constituents. The MU-2 was being operated by freight company Flight Line.

Centennial was the site of a subsequent fatal MU-2 accident on Aug. 4, 2005, also a Flight Line-operated MU-2B-60. The NTSB has not yet issued a final report on either accident.

The FAA has twice conducted a special certification review of the MU-2, first in 1984 and again in 1996. In both cases, the review was designed to evaluate whether the MU-2 met all applicable certification requirements, which it did.

The agency’s most recent evaluation sought to identify possible operational problems that might have led to a surge in MU-2 accidents. According to the FAA’s statistics, the MU-2’s accident rate is not as high as that of some other freighter turboprops such as the Swearingen Metro, Embraer Bandeirante and Beech 99.

Nevertheless, “As a result of our concern last summer and fall,” said FAA director of aircraft certification John Hickey, “we decided to do an evaluation of the MU-2 that was broader than just the airplane. The general conclusion is the need for mandatory and standardized training for the pilots who fly the MU-2.”

Focusing on Part 135
There are nearly 400 MU-2s on the U.S. aircraft registry. About 60 of those are operated in Part 135 service, flying freight, passengers or as air ambulance transports, according to Pat Cannon, vice president of Turbine Aircraft Services (TAS) of Dallas, a company that provides MU-2 product support under contract to MU-2 manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. TAS also conducts free biennial pilots review of proficiency (Prop) seminars for MU-2 pilots and operators. “That’s about 15 percent of the fleet,” he said, “but it’s accounted for 80 percent of the accidents.”

A few years ago, most accidents involved Part 91 operators, he explained. Part 135 operators, even though they flew more often and in worse weather conditions, had a better safety record. “In the last 18 months,” he added, “we’ve had a rash of [Part] 135 accidents. That’s really called attention to the problem.”

The explanation for the disparity between the accident records of MU-2s operated under Part 91 and Part 135 lies in the way pilots are trained. While a type rating is not required to fly any turboprop that weighs less than 12,500 pounds (including the MU-2), Cannon believes that most Part 91 pilots are now receiving formal training from MU-2 specialists. Part 135 operators, on the other hand, can run their own in-house training programs.

“Typically,” said Ralph Sorrells, deputy general manager of the product support division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, “a Part 135 operator has a candidate [who] may have a lot of time in twin-engine airplanes. He comes in on, say, Thursday, reads the manual on Friday and maybe some of Saturday, and they put him on the line Monday flying the airplane. That’s simply not enough.”

A Renewed Emphasis on Training
“[In] Part 135, they’ve had inadequate in-house training. The FAA has to make it uniform for everybody,” agreed Dave Slivka, a former MU-2 factory employee, 1,000-hour MU-2 pilot and owner and president of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Anaconda Aviation. Slivka also runs the Mitsubishi Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group for MU-2 operators.

“What triggered us on this [attention to the] MU-2,” said the FAA’s Hickey, “was the nature of the accidents in the last couple of years, which was highlighting that perhaps the pilots were not trained at the level that they needed to be for the airplane.”

“When you look at the MU-2,” added Jim Ballough, FAA director of the flight standards service, “early on it was used in corporate aviation and today it’s used extensively in cargo hauling and also by private owners. And it is our belief that the pilots flying them today are a little less experienced.”

What the FAA team did in this round of MU-2 evaluations was conduct a flight standardization board (FSB) “to look at the machine-pilot interface, and we concluded from that report that we need to make some changes in the way pilots are trained to fly the MU-2,” said Ballough.

Rep. Tancredo wanted a type-rating requirement, but he isn’t satisfied with the FAA’s response. According to a staffer in Tancredo’s Washington, D.C. office, “He does want them grounded, and, no, he is not satisfied with the [FAA] evaluation and [the requirement for] increased flight training. Judging from the crash statistics, the problem is not the pilots, it’s the airplane.”

For MU-2 experts such as Slivka, what the FAA discovered is nothing new. “This is not a revelation,” he said. “I’ve always told everybody, you need to be trained in the airplane,” he concluded.

“This process got started,” said TAS president Tom Berscheidt, “because of a number of accidents in a short period of time, which was an anomaly. The FAA took the reins and immediately launched a safety review. Mitsubishi is totally supportive of what the FAA has done and has responded favorably to everything it’s asked and wants to work with it toward this goal.”

SAFETY EVALUATION RESULTS
The FAA convened a Flight Standardization Board during its recent safety evaluation of the Mitsubishi MU-2. The agency released the FSB’s final report on February 9, and new training requirements for the MU-2 will be implemented in two phases–the revision of operations specifications for Part 135 operators and via a special FAR (SFAR) for Part 91 operators. The FSB’s conclusions apply to all MU-2 pilots and operators in the U.S. and to all training and checking.

• Level E training, checking and currency will apply to MU-2s. (Level E requirements normally make an aircraft eligible for a type rating.)

• Certain pilot knowledge, skills and abilities must be emphasized, including accelerated stall awareness, VMC awareness, airspeed management, icing knowledge and certification performance standards for all-engine and one-engine-inoperative operations.

• New MU-2 pilots need formal MU-2 training (20 hours ground and 12 hours flight, with minimum six hours of Level E training).

• Pilots should have annual recurrent training. (Eight hours ground and four flight hours at Level E or six at Level C.)

• Pilots without documented MU-2B experience in the past two years will need to undergo requalification training (12 hours ground, eight hours flight).

• There will be no checking for Part 91 pilots but annual currency checking for Part 135 pilots.

• Landing currency applies to the MU-2B exclusively. Flight review valid for MU-2B operations only if it is conducted in the MU-2B.

• Flight instructors must be current in MU-2B (per FSB currency) and have 2,000 hours total time, 800 multi-engine and 300 in MU-2B (50 hours in past 12 months).

• Examiners, FAA inspectors, training center evaluators and check airmen must meet FSB qualification, maintain currency in MU-2B and have 100 hours in MU-2B.
This report becomes effective when the FAA gives its final approval.