Saturday, June 21, 2014

The weak link in aircraft system: pilot competency -Martha Lunken

Regarding USA TODAY's report "Unfit for Flight" (June 18):

The liability limits passed by Congress in the 1990s on claims brought against aircraft and component manufacturers saved the U.S. aviation industry. A basically sound airplane would, for example, have an owner who failed to maintain it in an airworthy condition. Years later, if a component failed through neglect and someone was hurt or killed, plaintiffs were awarded huge damages by the courts or by settlements with insurance companies. As a result, the big airplane manufacturers like Cessna and Piper simply quit building and the industry suffered badly; the negative impact on pilot training and the entire general aviation industry was tremendous. In some ways it has never fully recovered.

No responsible aircraft owner ignores service bulletins or alerts issued by aircraft or component manufacturers. The seat issue mentioned in the story is a case in point. I own a Cessna 180 that is nearly 60 years old. Twenty years ago when I learned about this issue from Cessna, I installed approved "seat stops" and have never had a problem.
We don't need new or more regulations. We simply need to enforce those already on the books.

The NTSB has neither the resources nor cause to respond to every aircraft incident or accident. Delegating responsibility to the local FAA Flight Standards District Office is a common and viable practice.

FAA safety inspectors are trained in accident investigation and most general aviation accidents can be thoroughly and responsibly handled at this level.

But, of course, one aircraft accident is too many. Unfortunately, the real weak link in the system is pilot competency. In over 52 years as a pilot – 28 as an FAA safety inspector involved in accident investigations in three district offices – I can count on one hand the number of fatal general aviation accidents that occurred because of a catastrophic mechanical failure.

Finally, while James Pilcher's article "NKY plane crash mirrors US trend" (June 18) tells a tragic story, it speaks to a category of aircraft fundamentally different from those targeted in USA TODAY's feature.

Rod Tarter's Starduster Too was built, licensed and (hopefully) maintained as an experimental homebuilt, not a production model subject to the stringent certification process required for U.S. type certificated aircraft. The pilot owner, usually not an FAA certificated aircraft mechanic, is responsible for its airworthiness. Required "Experimental" placards which must be prominently displayed on these airplanes alert passengers to that status.

That said, most homebuilders are incredibly conscientious and talented craftsmen.

As an aficionado and a pilot examiner, I very often fly and administer flight tests in experimental airplanes built by these kinds of people.

And there are others experimentals I refuse to climb into.

Martha Lunken, Mount Lookout 

Story, comments and photo: