NTSB Counts SMS, Recorders, FDM among 'Most Wanted'

 - April 7, 2021, 9:15 AM
Robinson Helicopter is among the manufacturers that has a cockpit video camera available for its models. NTSB is calling for the installation of systems such as these aboard all aircraft involved in passenger-carrying operations. (Photo: Robinson Helicopter)

The National Transportation Safety Board approved its 2021-2022 "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements on Tuesday, calling for safety management systems (SMS) in all revenue passenger-carrying aviation operations, as well as urging mandatory crashworthy recorders and the adoption of flight data monitoring programs.

The two issues were among the 10 focus areas on the list that NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said stem from a combined 118 safety recommendations. Each item on the list is backed by data, he added.

For the 2021-2022 list, NTSB is urging the FAA to require, as well as verify the effectiveness of, SMS in all revenue passenger-carrying operations. “It is concerning that preventable accidents involving Part 135 and Part 91 revenue passenger-carrying operations continue to occur,” said Dana Schulze, director of NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, in recommending the addition of SMS to the safety list. “We believe more widespread adoption of safety management systems …could have a positive impact.”

SMS has been a priority for the NTSB for well over a decade, with the first safety recommendation, initially aimed at Part 121, coming out in 2007. Since 2015 the Safety Board has highlighted this issue in reports surrounding five accidents. Over the years, the NTSB has also recommended that the FAA and other government agencies require SMS for emergency medical helicopter operators, public aircraft, Part 135, and commercial operators.

“Most recently, we asked the FAA to require SMS for all revenue passenger-carrying operations, including those conducted under Part 91,” she said, but added FAA action, while on the legislative agenda, remains “a distant target. Considering the continued occurrence of fatal accidents that might have been prevented through effective implementation of SMS, it's important the FAA action in this area is timely.”

She added that, in some cases, operators have voluntarily implemented in SMS, but without FAA oversight or review those programs were ineffective. While the FAA has a voluntary SMS program for Part 135, participation remains low. Only 20 operators have been accepted into the FAA’s program and another 213 are in various stages of approval, she said.

As for recorders, NTSB noted that they are only required on commercial airlines, but that other passenger-carrying commercial aircraft, such as charter airplanes and air tours, should be equipped with data, audio, and video recording devices. The Safety Board said having video “would have been extremely helpful in determining flight crew actions in recent crashes in Texas, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.”

The NTSB estimated that 86 percent of turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft involved in fatal crashes that it investigated between 2005 and 2017 were not equipped with any recorder.

Jim Ritter, the director of the NTSB Office of Research and Engineering, said that despite decades of recommendations to require cockpit recorders “there's been little action on the part of the FAA.” As a result, NTSB last year issued recommendations directly to manufacturers to install flight data audio and image recording systems on new turbine-powered helicopters and provide a means for retrofit.

“The FAA has stated recorder recommendations present unique challenges, including difficulties in conducting a cost-benefit analysis, technical hurdles, retrofit problems, and privacy and security concerns as barriers to rulemaking,” Ritter noted. However, early feedback from the helicopter manufacturers has been more promising, with initial responses coming from five of the six affected manufacturers, he said. 

Flight data monitoring is another area repeated by the NTSB, including recommendations stemming from the 2015 Hawker 700 accident in Akron, Ohio, and most recently was reiterated during the Island Express helicopter accident. Regarding flight data monitoring programs, Ritter said the FAA’s focus has been on voluntary efforts and that the agency has plans to survey operators to see how many have installed the FDM systems but has postponed that effort.

“The longer we go without cockpit image recorders, the more crashes that cannot be fully explained in future crashes that cannot be prevented,” he said. “Further, without FDM recorders and flight data monitoring programs, operators lack a critical tool to improve safety by addressing and identifying hazards before they cause an accident.”