By Alan Levin
WASHINGTON - More people have died in crashes on government aircraft, which are exempt from most U.S. safety regulations, than on commercial airliners over the past five years, the first time that’s happened over a similar span.
Not including flights in war zones, accidents since 2007 have killed 52 people, including a team battling a forest fire, wildlife and forestry workers and citizens that law-enforcement agencies were trying to rescue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Fifty people have died on scheduled passenger flights in the same period.
U.S., state and local government agencies operate or hire hundreds of helicopters, single-engine planes and jets, according to National Transportation Safety Board records. These flights aren’t regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial and private flights.
“This has always been the black hole of aviation safety,” Jim Hall, a former safety-board chairman, said in an interview. “There is absolutely no reason that the government is not required to adhere to the same standards as everyone else in terms of aviation regulations.”
The safety board, which has raised concerns over government safety lapses in recent crashes, is holding a two-day public forum on the issue starting today.
Government aircraft fly about one-tenth as many hours as each year as commercial airliners, though their relative risk is elevated by the hazardous missions they sometimes undertake. Government aircraft operated an estimated 1.75 million hours in 2009, according to FAA data.
While government agencies may impose their own safety rules and conduct inspections, standards vary and rules are sometimes not enforced, safety-board investigations have found.
“We have had accidents in the last few years where we go on scene and we still find confusion and a lack of clarity over who is responsible for oversight,” Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an interview.
Commercial aviation fatalities have fallen more than 80 percent since the 1990s, according to NTSB data. By comparison, fatalities on government flights, which averaged 11 per year since 2000, have stayed roughly the same.
“That is exactly why we are holding this forum, to try to create a downward trend when it comes to fatalities and injuries in public aviation,” Hersman said.
The FAA is prohibited from performing inspections and checks to ensure that flights operated by government agencies are safe, Les Dorr, an agency spokesman, said in an interview.
Some government agencies would welcome the agency’s oversight, said Keith Raley, chief of aviation safety for the U.S. Interior Department. The department has a fleet of 105 aircraft and charters others, Raley said in an interview.
His department requires that its flights follow FAA’s regulations though it’s not mandated to do so, he said.
The lack of clear authority to oversee these flights is the reason safety improvements have lagged behind, Hall said. Little has changed since he joined the NTSB in 1993, he said. Hall’s tenure ran until January 2001.
“There were numerous accidents and numerous deaths where it was just apparent that the basic regulatory responsibility was not in anyone’s hands,” Hall said.
That was the case in an Aug. 5, 2008, crash of a helicopter hired by the U.S. Forest Service to airlift a firefighting crew from a Northern California mountaintop, the safety board found. The chopper crashed and burned, killing seven firefighters, a pilot and a government inspector.
Carson Helicopters Inc. of Perkasie, Pa., which operated the flight, falsified records, leading pilots to think they had enough power to lift off when the craft was over its weight limit, the safety board said.
The Forest Service had required that Carson be certified by the FAA as a charter operator and follow all FAA regulations. The NTSB found that the agency hadn’t checked to verify whether the company was following FAA rules.
After a Maryland State Police medevac helicopter crashed in District Heights, Maryland, on Sept. 27, 2008, investigators found that the pilot hadn’t adequately checked the weather, as required under FAA rules. Four of the five people aboard died, including a woman being taken to a hospital after a car crash. The FAA hadn’t inspected the state police operation in the year prior to the accident, the safety board found.
Rescue Triggers Death
A hiker whom New Mexico State Police were trying to rescue in the mountains near Santa Fe died on June 9, 2009, when a helicopter rolled down a rocky ridge. The pilot of the helicopter also died. The NTSB said the State Police’s “organizational culture,” which emphasized performing the mission over safety, was partly to blame. The FAA hadn’t inspected the operation.
The Helicopter Association International, the Alexandria, Virginia-based group that represents government and non- government charter operators, is urging more consistent standards be applied to government flights, Matt Zuccaro, the group’s president, said in an interview.
The FAA is drafting an advisory document that will clarify which government flights it oversees, Dorr said.
The Forest Service, which operates more flights than any other agency, has added safety inspectors and improved training and changed procedures in response to the 2008 California crash, Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management at the agency, said in an interview.
“We’ve stepped up our program in response to the need to keep our firefighters and our pilots safe,” Harbour said.