Accident rates are down – but there are fears that pilots’ lack of stick-and-rudder training could lead to problems when the unexpected happens. Ian Putzger investigates
The tragic losses of Colgan Air flight 3407, which crashed on 12 February 2009, and Air France flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic on 1 June of the same year, have raised worrying questions about pilots’ abilities to cope with unstable flight situations as well as the regulatory and training framework.
“There is less and less time to hand-fly an aircraft. There is less awareness on the pilot’s part what the plane is doing and is going to do next,” warns Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF). Perhaps it is time to start asking questions about automation – and to change pilot training, he suggests.
For Voss, the writing was on the wall a long time before these accidents that sparked off the public debate about pilots’ skills. In his words, the issue had “all the stealth of a freight train”.
Recent accident statistics indicate no obvious problem. Numbers compiled by Robert E Breiling Associates in Boca Raton, Florida, show zero fatalities for business jets and turboprops flown by paid flight crews in the US in the first half of this year. Over this period, there were 11 accidents involving US business jets, down from 14 a year ago. For US turboprops, the number of accidents was down from 24 to 15.
Neither is this an isolated lucky period. According to Ascend, the data and consultancy division of Flightglobal, there has been a consistent trend towards fewer business jet fatalities over the past two decades. For the 1990s, Ascend recorded one fatal accident per 600 aircraft, which had improved to one per 900 aircraft in the following decade. By 2010 the rate was down to one fatal accident per 3,300 aircraft, and 2011 showed one per 5,000.
Voss is pleased at this. “In the last decade we had 10 major accidents a year on average. Now it is seven or eight,” he comments, adding that the downward trend has continued for enough years to make it significant.
Interestingly, the business jet segment shows greater improvement than the turboprop sector. According to Ascend data, over the last 20 years the fatality rate for business jets has been twice as good, and in 2011 it actually was four times as good as the rate for turboprops.
Not only have turboprops shown less improvement, but the fatality rate per seat remains considerably higher. Last year it stood at one fatality per 2,300 seats, whereas the rate in business jets was one per 11,100 seats. Major accidents involving commercial turboprops averaged 23.4 over the past five years, according to the FSF, well above the 10 per year for business jets in the 2000-11 period.
According to Ascend, the improvement in accident and fatality rates for business jets does not extend to airframes. The present number of airframe losses registered for 2011 stands at 11 worldwide. This is down from the previous year, but past experience suggests that some of the damages sustained in 2011 that have been assessed as “major partial losses” may turn out to be total losses after all. The longer-term trend is not showing any improvement in hull loss accident frequency.
As with jets, turboprops have not seen a significant reduction in total losses over the past two decades.
Still running off the runway
Runway excursions remain one of the biggest headaches for the industry, as they accounted for a growing number of accidents in recent years. “Business aviation is not doing well on runway excursions,” Voss says. “There is no change in the runway excursion rate. It is still significant.”
Statistics from the FSF show that jets and turboprops with an MTOW of over 12,500lbs (5,670kg) suffered over 650 runway excursion accidents worldwide between 1995 and 2010, including 65 fatal crashes that claimed the lives of 1,121 people.
This can partially be attributed to short runways or airports that are unfamiliar to operators. An additional factor is that ATC and airspace design tend to favour large hub airports rather than small airports. Nevertheless, the issue remains a major headache for the FSF, which has been working with ICAO on runway safety initiatives and has also addressed the issue in its recently updated toolkit with a template for pilots on what to do and what not to do in unstable flight situations during the landing phase.
The emphasis on runway excursions should not distract from runway incursions, which have been much deadlier. As many as 55% of all incursion accidents between 1995 and 2010 had fatal outcomes.
Data from the fatal accident database of the UK CAA and Ascend show that between 2002 and 2011, 51% of the fatal business jet accidents worldwide happened during approach, landing or go-around phases. Approach turned out to be the most ominous stage, accounting for 31% of the fatal accidents, ahead of take-offs with 19%. Climb and landing phases followed with 15% each.
“What bothers us is the CFIT problem [controlled flight into terrain],” remarks Voss, pointing to 50 such accidents in the turboprop segment over five years. TAWS, or terrain awareness warning system, has been widely recognised and embraced as a major part of the safety equation, but it has not been completely adopted yet, either among turboprop or business jet operators, Voss points out.
The numbers from the UK CAA and Ascend indicate that go-around accounted for 5% of fatal business jet accidents between 2002 and 2011, the same share as the descent phase. Most likely this number would be significantly higher if pilots were more inclined to pull out of unstable descent situations and perform go-arounds. The FSF has conducted surveys of over 1,000 pilots, operators and manufacturers and found that very few of them go around because of an unstable approach. Only in 17% of the situations that dictate a go-around do pilots actually abort the landing process and do so.
“Go-around is a challenging manoeuvre. Pilots often perceive as much risk in a go-around as in an unstable approach,” says Voss.
Flight schools point out that go-around is part of the curriculum. “We provide training in the simulator that helps the pilots with their decision-making skills such as deciding early on when to go around,” comments Steve Phillips, VP of communications at FlightSafety International.
Yet pilots’ hesitation as regards go-arounds appears well-founded. The FSF found that up to 90% of go-arounds result in undesired aircraft states. This is partly due to lack of training, partly because of the power and level of automation of modern business jets, Voss finds. Used to simulator situations for a go-around with one engine, pilots are having a hard time trying to cope with the thrust of both engines.
Voss argues that fundamental changes in the operation of commercial aircraft require a fresh look to be taken at training. “We’ve been a little too fixated on the DC-3 days and Cary Grant taking off in a DC-6 with one engine on fire,” he says. “We have not addressed issues of automation and done two-engine go-around.”
Doug Carr, VP for safety, security, operations and regulation at the National Business Aviation Association, agrees that there is a need for changes to the curriculum to address issues arising from accidents such as those involving AF447 and Colgan Air 3407.
“We’ve got to do better as an industry as relates to training,” he comments. Currently, when a pilot goes to a training facility, the emphasis is more on ticking off a checklist than on learning, he adds, though he stresses that the objective should not be to make training harder for pilots – nor to make life more difficult for training centres.
Ongoing training is key
Phillips emphasises the need for regular simulator training. “FlightSafety strongly believes that training twice a year in a simulator enhances safety and helps pilots to remain proficient,” he states. “The vast majority of our customers understand the importance of regular training and do it twice a year.”
One carrier that has made major changes to its training programme in the wake of the Colgan Air and Air France tragedies is Emirates Airline. It has inserted two days of manual simulator flying into its pilots’ recurrent training, a bold move and an expensive one, given the charges involved.
Although training requires some fairly large changes, according to Carr, he does not think that the regulatory framework needs to be modified.
Europe saw a large regulatory change this past April, when new regulations for pilot training and issuance of European pilot licences, ratings and certificates under the aegis of the European Aviation Safety Agency came into effect. However, there is scope for confusion, according to the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA).
“You would assume that the new rules apply across the board, but that is not the case,” says Fabio Gamba, CEO of the EBAA. Several countries have asked for a grace period for their existing regulations, which means the new regime will not be fully in place across the region before 2014 at the earliest.
“Some countries adopt and implement new regulations more rapidly, which creates a differential between different countries. You may be operating under one regime in one country and under a different one in the next,” he warns.
By the same token, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) was concerned about the implementation of new SID/STAR phraseology in Canada in February of this year. Although about 70% of ICAO contracting states have implemented procedures to comply with its provisions, a significant number of countries have yet to do so.
Pilots are concerned about differences between the Canadian and US regimes, which they have claimed will create confusion in cross-border operations.
In the US, changes in procedures and phraseology governing standard instrument departures have also created concern. On 15 August, the new Climb Via instruction for SIDs was scheduled to go live. It mirrored the similar Descend Via instruction issued earlier for standard terminal arrival route procedures.
Pilots would have had to remember the new terminology as well as all the restrictions on altitude and speed, lest they risk separation losses, pilot deviations and potentially tense moments in the cockpit. Shortly before the planned implementation date, the FAA cancelled Climb Via and Descend Via procedures and phraseology, citing concerns over coordination of pilot and controller briefing material.
“The FAA erred on the side of caution,” comments Carr. “Climb Via brings a lot of new elements to the system.”
The FAA has been pushing for the creation of data-driven safety improvement plans. The objective is to reproduce the improvements made in airline safety through the Civil Aviation Safety Team, which examined accident and incident data to identify risk areas and developed programmes to address these problems. The FAA hopes that business aviation operators will sign up to the voluntary aviation safety information analysis and sharing (ASIAS) programme, which the FAA intends to use as the vehicle for gathering data.
Voss welcomes the plan, pointing out that ATC surveillance data can provide powerful insights. “The FAA has done a stunning job with ASIAS. The richness of the data is extraordinary,” he says.
Data protection, on the other hand, is a problem. “The Comair case ruling made it clear that there is no protection,” says Voss. “The industry needs to do a better job in a unified effort to put protection into law.”
Criminalisation is a big issue, agrees Carr. Instead of leading to changes in rules that would improve safety, investigations are more geared towards filing criminal charges, he laments. “Accidents should be an opportunity to learn as opposed to an opportunity to blame.”
Illegal flights headache
Ironically, it seems harder to apply the letter of the law when it comes to illegal flights. The EBAA estimates that these make up 6-8% of total movements.
“Today in Europe we are not tooled in a way that allows member states to eradicate illegal flights – not only to spot illegal flights but also repress them,” comments Gamba. “This is a huge headache for the industry, forcing prices down unfairly. It creates a comparative disadvantage for operators who respect the legal requirements.”
He adds that the safety regime in Europe is more stringent than those in most other areas, which creates a high degree of safety – but at a cost that threatens the survival of smaller players. “Because of cost and time constraints, it will be more and more difficult for a small operator with one or two aircraft. The inherent costs of running an operation are higher in Europe than elsewhere,” he says.
From EBAA’s vantage point, one promising development on the regulatory side has been the agreement reached last year to create specific rules for flight time limitations under the aegis of the European Aviation Safety Agency. EBAA will be participating in the working group on FTL in a dialogue that Gamba expects to last into 2014.
The association hopes that this will lead to the development of more frameworks geared specifically to business aviation. “In Europe, business aviation is largely considered as an extension of commercial aviation. It is not regarded as a specific element,” Gamba says.
The safety regulations implemented by EASA in April are a case in point, as they do not reflect the specific needs of the business aviation sector. “What we have done with FTL, we would like to replicate with other things,” Gamba says.
FTL is also high on the agenda in North America. Carr alleges that efforts to improve aviation safety have aimed for the low-hanging fruit. “Now we should focus on areas like fatigue awareness and management,” he says.
For the Canadian Business Aviation Association, fatigue management has been the second big issue besides the implementation of a new regulatory framework based on ICAO’s SMS, notes Sam Barone, the organisation’s president and CEO. “There is concern with fatigue over long distances. We need to manage that in terms of risk, but also mindful of the fact that our missions are different from those of a 777 pilot,” he says.
The FSF has identified another area that requires attention. There is no guidance for functional check flights, Voss points out. This is despite an extraordinarily high accident rate in non-revenue and non-mission flights.
In June, ICAO signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Airports Council International to jointly pursue the highest possible levels of safety at airports worldwide. At the centre of this will be the ACI’s Airport Excellence in Safety programme.
Carr welcomes the collaboration, but has reservations about its benefits to business aviation. “I think their focus is more on large airports,” he says.