AIN Blog: Risky Business (Animals in Airplanes)

 - May 10, 2016, 7:23 PM
NTSB investigators found this photo of a "red/brown haired large dog" on an iPad on this CJ2 after it crashed, while carrying the unrestrained dog and two cats, in 2013. (Photo: NTSB report)

Reading the NTSB’s probable cause and narrative of the Sept. 29, 2013 landing crash of a Citation 525A (CJ2) at Santa Monica Airport in southern California raises an issue I’ve never seen addressed in aircraft accident studies: passengers of the pet variety. According to the NTSB, in addition to the pilot and three passengers, “a large, red/brown-haired dog” and two cats were also on board. “None of the animals was restrained or caged.”

With all due respect for pet lovers and dogs and cats that enjoy flying in airplanes—and I know there are many—perhaps this accident illustrates some risks of carrying unrestrained pets. I see all the time here in southern California car drivers blithely zooming around with their pets sitting on their laps while driving. Somehow this doesn’t seem very smart. And not just because the driver could be distracted at a critical juncture, but because in all fairness to the pets, they are going to go flying if the driver jams on the brakes or gets into an accident.

What did the NTSB say in the case of the Santa Monica accident?

The NTSB’s probable cause didn’t address the pets on board: “The pilot’s failure to adequately decrease the airplane’s ground speed or maintain directional control during the landing roll, which resulted in a runway excursion and collision with an airport sign and structure and a subsequent postcrash fire.”

Nevertheless, while the NTSB is loath to speculate outright about other elements that could have contributed to the crash, it does include factual information that it believes is pertinent. And I’m pretty sure the NTSB in this case felt that the unrestrained animals were worth noting. Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions.

From the NTSB docket on this accident, which provides all the details from the investigation, and the narrative, the NTSB investigators explained that they examined the five personal electronic devices (PEDs) found on board, which included three iPhones and two iPads. Data was not recovered from one of the iPads and two iPhones, while investigators were able to pull data from an iPhone 4 and iPad 2.

According to the NTSB, a photo from the iPhone 4 during the accident flight shows, “Far front in cabin was a large, red/brown haired dog with its head pointed forward. Dog was in the aisle, with the torso forward of the rearward-facing seats. Two people were sitting aft of the dog in the forward-facing seats; a male on the left side of the airplane, a female on the right. Each person had a cat in their lap. None of the three animals was restrained or caged.”

In another photo from the same iPhone during that flight: “Compared to prior photo, dog was farther forward; both cats were now on the lap of the male.”

In the narrative description of the accident, the NTSB explained what it found on the iPad 2, but this content wasn’t from the accident flight; it was from an earlier flight out of Santa Monica, where the airplane was based. One of the photos is the one at the top showing the “red/brown haired large dog standing in front of the aircraft.” The iPad, according to the NTSB, “contained a low-resolution, 52-second video of N194SJ taking off from Santa Monica, California Airport on an undetermined date. The video began as the aircraft started its takeoff roll. About 10 seconds into the video, the camera panned left showing the interior of the cockpit. A red/brown haired dog…was positioned facing forward with its nose about 18 inches aft of the throttle quadrant. As the aircraft was rotating 19 seconds into the video, a person in the cockpit said, “…you want to be up front too, huh?”

I have no idea whether the three unrestrained pets in this jet had anything to do with this accident, and it’s likely that we’ll never find the answer to that question. But the fact that the NTSB felt it was important to include this information is telling. And it does underscore the importance of safely flying with pets. Pilots n Paws, the general aviation animal rescue organization, recommends crates or harnesses for dogs flying in general aviation aircraft. 

Dr. Arnold Goldman, a veterinarian based in Connecticut, provided this advice in an online forum post in 2009: “A number of non-medical hazards put flying pets at risk and should be mentioned here. Most significant of these includes unrestrained impact with aircraft cabin interior bulkheads or fittings in turbulent air or upon landing. Several well constructed harnesses are available from pet suppliers to properly restrain your pet in flight, and these are designed to tie into a general aviation seat restraint to safely secure your pet in flight. A further advantage is avoidance of control interference by unpredictable pets. Speaking of unpredictable pets, it should be obvious to you that not every pet is ready to undertake flight. They must be trained to be calm and not to interfere with the PIC. You can judge your pet's level of flight readiness by observing their automobile behavior. If they sit calmly and leave the driver alone in a car, they will likely do so in an aircraft. The harness will offer some additional insurance in this regard. Obviously, fractious pets are inappropriate flight companions.”

While there don’t seem to be many accidents tied to animals in general aviation cabins, a search of the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System database turned up a number of dog-related incidents, many of which involved distraction of the pilot during critical phases of flight. In a military King Air (C-12), the pilots inadvertently flew through a “small-diameter, violent, ice-laden cell.” The report went on: “Before I could grasp power levers and reduce power, we were thrown down violently then up violently.” After exiting the turbulence, “The copilot immediately went aft to assist passengers, who were all restrained by seat belts. Their dog, however, was killed by violent roof/floor impact. The tiny dog was fine, but the bigger one (35 pounds) broke its spine.”