Single-pilot ops targeted by regulators

 - October 19, 2010, 6:24 AM

The crash of a Premier IA jet at the EAA AirVenture show this summer after an unstabilized approach has helped to reignite the debate over the efficacy of single-pilot turbine aircraft operations by non-professional pilots.

The statistics are irrefutable. Single-piloted turbine aircraft crash far more often than do those operated by two- pilot crews. The latest report from Robert E. Breiling and Associates, the aviation safety data consultancy, provides a glaring contrast between both single- and two-crew aircraft as well as a differentiation between the accident rates of aircraft operated by professional corporate flight departments and other operators.

Based on an analysis per 100,000 flight hours, Breiling found that the accident rate for turbine aircraft flown by non-professional pilots was four times higher than that for aircraft operated by corporate flight departments. He also found that turbine aircraft certified for single-pilot operations had an overall accident rate that was 3.4 times higher and a fatal accident rate that was 13 times higher than aircraft that require dual pilot operations.

The FAA recognizes this risk and that is why it requires a more extensive minimum equipment list for most turbine aircraft that it certifies for single-pilot operations, such as mandating a functioning autopilot on all flights. Nevertheless, certain aircraft that are commonly operated single pilot crash more often, and as the prices of these used aircraft continue to decline, thereby making them more affordable to less experienced owner-pilots, the risk increases. The Cessna Citation II provides a good example of this, although the yardstick could be applied to other aircraft as well. Used copies of this aircraft are now widely available for less than $1 million and many owners fly it single pilot, either because they have a IISP model or are operating under a "Part 91 exemption" that applies to a variety of Citation models. Breiling thinks single pilot operation of the Citation II accounts for its much higher overall accident and fatal rates per 100,000 flight hours over the first half of the decade than two competitive aircraft that require dual-pilot operations, the Beechjet 400A and the Learjet 31A. The Citation posted an overall accident rate of 1.6 and a fatal rate of 0.34 compared to 0.74 and 0.08 for the Beechjet and 0.19 and zero for the Learjet 31A.

Self-regulation, training, and professionalism likely hold the combined key to improving the single pilot accident rate. A Chicago area operator of a Citation II, who is not a professional pilot, said he simply does not operate single pilot if the flight is long, involves bad weather or is in congested airspace.

Higher training standards, both mandatory and voluntary, appear to be working in several cases.