Responding in part to crashes in Hawaii and Alaska, the government announced new safety standards last week for air tour companies that operate at many scenic vacation spots and for pilots who offer rides at air shows.
The Federal Aviation Administration also promised to keep closer track of deaths and other accidents involving air tours. Safety investigators have pressed for this, having looked into 107 accidents that killed 98 people between 1988 and 1995.
The safety rule, which takes effect in six months, “will increase overall air tour safety, improve the FAA’s ability to track and monitor commercial air tour flights and help us identify and address operational trends that could lead to accidents,” said the agency’s head, Marion Blakey.
The National Transportation Safety Board in 1995 conducted a broad investigation of air tour accidents. The review came after two fatal helicopter crashes in Hawaii on the same day, July 14, 1994.
In one crash, passengers were not told about life vests beneath the seats. When the aircraft crashed into the ocean, the passengers swam for shore without using the vests. Three people drowned, including the pilot.
After that crash, tougher safety rules were imposed over Hawaii that required passengers be briefed on life vests.
On July 3, 1997, a sightseeing airplane flight ditched about 100 feet from shore near Skagway, Alaska. Two passengers drowned and two were presumed drowned. None was wearing life jackets.
The FAA’s new standards require better passenger briefings and life preservers for passengers on planes that fly over water. Within 18 months, aircraft that fly over water must install floats.
The rule also requires air tour companies to get a letter from the FAA permitting them to operate. Companies would have to tell the FAA who runs the operation, who maintains the aircraft, what type of aircraft they use and how their drug and alcohol testing program works.
The lack of national statistics about air tour companies had frustrated the NTSB, which in 1995 urged the FAA to begin collecting information about the industry.
“That’s basic Public Safety 101 — keeping track of accidents and seeing how well people are performing,” said Jim Hall, who was NTSB chairman when it investigated air tour accidents.
John Allen, the FAA’s deputy director of flight standards, said people who gave rides at air shows were especially difficult to track. “These were nomadic,” he said, noting they might fly in air shows in the North during the summer and migrate south for the winter.
Those companies will fall under the new rule, as will charities that give airplane rides to raise money.
Under previous rules, pilots who gave rides to raise money had to have at least 200 hours of flying time. Now they will have to have 500 hours or a commercial pilots’ license and limits the number of days that charity flights can be conducted each year.
Two men and an 11-year-old boy were killed in September when their single-engine airplane crashed on takeoff at the Wings & Wheels air show in Calera, Ala. The pilot, who died in the crash, donated his time to give airplane rides to raise money for the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Ala.
The NTSB holds a hearing next week on two more fatal accidents in Hawaii that involved sightseeing helicopters.
Five people, including the pilot, were killed on Sept. 24, 2004, when a helicopter crashed into a mountain on Kauai. Three passengers drowned on Sept. 23, 2005, after a helicopter crashed into the ocean off the coast of Kauai.
On the Net:
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov
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