Sen. Stevens Crash Underscores Dismal General Aviation Safety Record

The 10 August plane crash in the wilds of Alaska that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AL) is the latest in a long line of crashes that have killed politicians. Not that politicians as a group engage in risky behavior, but they do tend to fly more than the average Joe. As a result, the “normal” accident rate is highlighted because crashes involving public figures tend to be covered in the media.

The typical flying architect, doctor or businessman – whether piloting his own airplane, or being flown by an air taxi operator – rates a mention in the local newspaper, but rarely is the crash covered in, say, the New York Times or NBC News.

What the Stevens crash illustrates is the vast difference in safety depending on how one is in the air.

Consider the three major groupings:

— Part 121, which comprises the scheduled nationwide and regional airlines that carry paying passengers.

— Part 135, which covers the on-demand charter or air taxi operations which, again, transport paying passengers.

— Part 91, the general aviation operators, or basically pilots who fly their own airplanes and a few non-paying passengers.

And these three categories also involve successively greater levels of risk. The grim statistics belie the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) vaunted “one level of safety.”

Had Stevens and his companions flown on a Part 121 carrier, statistically they would be in one accident for every 670,000 hours flying time. This calculation, and others to follow, are based on National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) figures for 2009, the most recent year for which the NTSB has calculated the number of accidents, the number of flight hours, and the deaths and injuries.

Had Stevens and his buddies flown on a Part 135 on-demand charter, they would be exposed to one accident (fatal and nonfatal) for every 61,000 hours flying.

If Stevens and company climbed aboard a friend’s or acquaintance’s airplane, Part 91, they would be exposed to accidents at the rate of one every 14,000 flying hours, statistically speaking. In fact, this is the type of operation in which the red DeHavilland DHC-3T was operating, with a pilot and eight passengers aboard the single engine, high wing floatplane. Five of the nine aboard died.

DeHavilland DHC-3T similar to the one that crashed.

DeHavilland DHC-3T similar to the one that crashed.

A Part 91 operation does not have to file a flight plan with the FAA, nor is it required to have safety equipment found routinely on Part 121 and Part 135 operations. In this case, the Part 91 DeHavilland was not required to have a terrain warning device, which is significant. The wreckage was found at the end of a 100-yard gash through forest, the gash pointing toward the top of the ridgeline. It is apparent that in the fog and rain the pilot saw the rising terrain too late to clear it. A terrain warning device might well have alerted him to the hazard a good minute before the ridge appeared out of the mist.

Scene of the crash with airplane wreckage just above and to the right of the photo's center.

Scene of the crash with airplane wreckage just above and to the right of the photo's center.

One of the most common attributes of Part 91 accidents is also germane: starting the flight in visual conditions, then finding visibility compromised by clouds – instrument conditions – but the pilot presses on in the hopes of finding a hole in the clouds.

In any event, the three statistics can be summarized thusly:

— One would have to fly 12 hours a day for 150+ years on a Part 121 commercial scheduled airliner to be involved in an accident. Commercial flying is 10 times safer than charter Part 135 operations, and about 50 times safer than Part 91 flying.

— One would have to fly 12 hours a day for 14 years on a Part 135 on-demand charter plane to be involved in an accident. Given that many of the “protections” built into Part 121 airline operations are also part of Part 135, this accident rate is atrocious.

— One would have to fly 12 hours a day for just 3 years to be involved in a Part 91 general aviation accident.

Consider the spread: 150 years between accidents aboard an airliner; 3 years between such mayhem aboard a general aviation aircraft.

Here’s betting that people who fly as passengers on general aviation airplanes implicitly assume the operation is as safe – or nearly so – as an airliner, and probably equal in safety to an on-demand operation.

It isn’t so. General aviation airplanes are involved in accidents at an average rate of four per day, and about one of these accidents every other day involves fatalities.

If Part 121 and Part 135 airplanes were killing people at the rate of one airplane-full every other day, the fleets would be grounded.

The accident rate for Part 91 airplanes is a little known scandal. Operators of these aircraft ought not be allowed to kill themselves and their passengers at this rate. One hopes as the NTSB investigates this tragedy that the larger issue of Part 91 non-safety is addressed, with a clear call to the FAA that improved standards and oversight are long overdue.