Do More Rules Make Aviation Safer?
- Erika Armstrong
Twenty-four people have died in six U.S. business aviation accidents in the first nine months of 2023. All but one was being conducted under FAR Part 91 operations. It would be easy to conclude that operations with more oversight are the reason for the difference, but ultimately it comes down to the integrity of the flight crew and flight department. Early in my career, I discovered that Integrity doesn't always know when it's being tested.
My first real, full-time paid piloting job was at a bustling, high-energy, mission-oriented Part 135 company that provided passenger and cargo charter on-demand, hazardous materials transportation, and multiple levels of air ambulance services. You could walk in the hangar at 0200 and it could be just as busy as during daytime operations. Circadian rhythm was something other flight departments had.
When I wasn't flying, I was required to work in the office at the front desk and flight coordination. Every department I worked in received a cursory review of the rules, and we were aware of them, but our company culture took pride and rewarded us for knowing the rules well enough to figure out how to bend and push them to the limits. While you're working in this environment, you have nothing to contrast it with, so this becomes your normal. You don't know what you don't know. I loved figuring out how to interpret the rules to fit our needs. We took pride in getting the mission done and dodging all those red flags that slowed us down.
Once I got my type-rating in the Citation 500 series, my company started selling my pilot services to other Part 91 flight departments. Often at the last minute, I'd be sent to an unfamiliar flight department and was asked to hop in and go. Coming from the structure and rules of Part 135, I always assumed that Part 91 flight departments were operated at a more unrestricted level of operation―meaning, those safety rules were for other people. How lucky were they to not have to worry about those pesky Part 135 rules. I discovered that quite often, the opposite was true.
It was the safety mindset and culture of the company that set the "rules" and several of these Part 91 flight departments set their safety integrity at the highest level without having to be told to do so. It's hard to quantify, but you know it when you feel it, and the safety reflex was often set much higher than the minimum benchmark of the Part 135 rules.
Part 91 flight departments are given wide berth and the FARs only require a Part 61.58 qualification (mostly proficient check) for pilots. You can qualify the right-seat occupant to be second-in-command (SIC) in-house. It's the insurance companies that require more formal training, often at a Part 142 (simulator) training provider. Since I was both a dispatcher and pilot, I knew how complicated Part 135 could be, so I discovered that flying Part 91 requires self-regulation and integrity is the key. There are three general cultures of Part 91 that I experienced.
- Many of the Part 91 departments I flew with set a standard much higher than Part 135. They considered the rules as the bare minimum, and it was the first time I realized that the rules set in Part 135 are the lowest rung of safety. These departments had their own formalized organizational structure, but it was still difficult to know their process and procedures because even though they had generic manuals from ten years ago and were operating at an updated level, most of the information was tribal knowledge that isn't easily updated or passed on to the new or contract pilot.
- I also flew for several Part 91 flight departments who wanted to have Standard Operating Procedures and training, but their in-house setup wasn't formal. The intent and desire for safety was there, but they were lacking the organizational structure. Good intent, no follow through.
- For the rest of the Part 91 flight departments, I refused to fly for them again. Since I was just a contract pilot, there was only so much I could do in the moment except make sure I got home safely. Too often the captain had a willingness to take maintenance writeups into the air, descend past DH/MDA to take a peek, create duty time endurance contests, race to nontowered airports to land before another arriving aircraft, cancel IFR or circle to land without actually seeing the airport/runway…etc. The list goes on while my comfort level crashed. In these flight departments, there exists a general disregard for safety. The sad part is that the corporate passenger in the back will (hopefully) never know.
If a pilot wants to operate unsafely while on their own, it's their right (the insurance company might disagree), but when you put unsuspecting passengers onboard, whether they're a passenger under Part 91 OR 135, your rights to be unsafe end. Why should human life have safety variables?
Would more rules help these flight departments? Doubtful. They would find a way to operate in the gray; however, these flight departments would benefit from at least having a general Safety Management System. If, for example, they still want to depart with RVR of 10 feet, then so be it, but at least require a discussion of what that looks like and what to do when (not if) you have an engine failure.
I can never understand why a company with a multi-million-dollar airplane wouldn't want to spend at least the equivalent of a cup of coffee/day on structured ground training for everyone in their flight department. Not just aircraft-specific training, but training to cover all hazards flight operations are exposed to. There's no need to start from scratch when there are eLearning companies who've been providing flight department training services for decades. They set it all up for you. This training isn't just about rules. It's about setting up thought processes that create a better safety culture.
It's one of the reasons why I work at Advanced Aircrew Academy. We can simply fill in some training gaps not covered in the aircraft-specific training program, or we can create a full curriculum training program for your entire flight department. We deliver either individual modules or a group of modules as part of a flight department proficiency program and/or to meet your International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) training needs. You can select the group of modules you want from any of those listed on our website. Supplement your aircraft-specific training with our general operating subjects training.
Once we know your goals, we can propose a recommended list of topics. We have a complete line of modules available to meet your IS-BAO/training needs, including Emergency Procedures, Aircraft Surface Contamination, Safety Management Systems (SMS), Dangerous Goods, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), International Procedures, Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT), Crew Resource Management (CRM), High Altitude Operations, and Fatigue Management.
Consider us a diverse set of expert resources available to your training and flight department. Our service to you begins with a FREE training program analysis. Our team of experts has extensive experience managing business aviation training programs and will provide you with a recommended training plan to meet your flight department’s needs.