UAVs are Airplanes and Can Cause Aircraft Accidents

The FAA has been tasked with writing rules for the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or drones. Will this cause an uproar? Are baggage fees annoying? Absolutely.
Look, I support entrepreneurs; it is what Capitalism is all about. But this is not about who can play and who can’t. It is about SAFETY … period. It is important to note that the Aviation industry isn’t conforming to the UAV industry, the UAV industry has to conform to the Aviation industry; the commercial aviation industry has been around for almost seventy years.
Aviation is a unique mode of transportation: its safety affects not only the safety of the air traffic system, but the people on the ground. It becomes the only 3-dimensional transportation safety threat. Imagine a highway with an X, Y and Z axis lanes; it is occupied only by large and small trucks moving at great speeds … on a moonless night (not physically seeing other traffic) … with their lights on (transponder); they communicate via GPS and CB radio.
Now imagine countless bicycles, motorcycles and SMART cars running in and out of these trucks with no lights, communications or GPS. And add to this that they are piloted by radio-control with a 2-dimensional view.
A poor analogy? Perhaps. An aircraft accident that comes from a UAV strike will not be as survivable as the Miracle on the Hudson. An organization like the FAA is in the unique position to watch out – not only for the UAV industry – but for the safety of an established industry.

Why Aircraft Accidents Will Continue to Happen

The goal of every accident investigator is to become obsolete, put oneself out of a job by sheer success. I know of no aircraft accident investigator who gets up in the morning looking forward to the next smoking hole with glee. After a while the tragedies either harden you, make you immune, or they consume you.
The very nature of man – our nature – that drives us to protect others in one instant becomes complacent in the next. That may sound cynical, but as we make great leaps in improving our world, don’t we lower our guard just a little bit more? Don’t we defer our worries to technology and trust it to decide for us? Are we apt to trust someone – sight-unseen – whose only proof of a capable product is based solely on their word?
Consider this: reliability of anything less than 100% is unacceptable. A doctor, a food preparer, even a mechanic or pilot has to have a reliability of 100% when working.
I think aircraft accident investigators are going to be employed for a long time.

The Difference Between Major Aircraft Accidents and Minor

When I hired into the NTSB, it was my job to focus on major accidents, in other words aircraft accidents that draw the population’s attention, high profile. That’s not a bad thing; however, let’s look at the focus of the NTSB: to discover problems with how the transportation system works, whether it’s rail, aviation, marine, highway and pipeline.
Now high profile includes – as it should – accidents that take the life of public servants, e.g. Senators or Governors. However some celebrities become part of this group, whether they are sport celebrities or TV/movie. This means a large group of NTSB investigators are dispatched to look into a crash with one to three fatalities.
I once investigated an aircraft accident of a commercial airliner that flew freight; the NTSB launched maybe four investigators without the benefit of a proper hearing. The probable causes involved not only the airline, but contractors working on the destroyed jet. Could it be that there were only three fatalities on the cargo jet that became the reason for the minimal attention? Was it that the public awareness drove the NTSB to limit the number of investigators? Because I’ve known smaller high profile accidents with less issues that rated more interest.
An organization gambles its credibility when the decision to investigate or not to, rides on the attention the accident draws and not the human factor of someone losing a loved one.

Missing: One Aircraft Accident

I was doing some research, looking for an aircraft accident investigated in 2004; the DC-9 accident site was outside Mitu, Colombia and occurred on December 18, 2003. Three men perished when the aircraft fell from 23,000 feet. I located the accident on two separate sites by using a search engine with the words: Mitu, DC-9, and accident. It wasn’t on the NTSB website, which is strange because it was the NTSB that sent me to Colombia to investigate.
The description of the circumstances: the aircraft was cleared to descend from 23,000 to 7,000 feet; it then explains that the aircraft struck a mountainside after disappearing from radar. However this isn’t accurate. It was not controlled flight into terrain; it was a system failure that brought the aircraft down. The crew knew they were crashing the whole time, the entire way to the accident site. How do I know this? I listened to the cockpit voice recorder. The pilots bravely tried to regain control, but the aircraft was beyond hope, falling like a rock to the ground.
It bothers me that an accident thoroughly investigated was mis-diagnosed as CFIT. The submitted probable cause was as accurate as could be determined; it was supported by banging noises caught by the CVR. The sounds were analyzed by the CVR manufacturer and verified by the NTSB’s CVR expert.
The noises came from behind the cockpit, perhaps twenty feet towards the wing box. It was where the pallets of freight were located.
This is not theory; I know everything about this accident first hand. I wrote in my book about bureaucratic deceptions. My concern is that there were more than one of these DC-9s out there, flying in the years before being retired or sold to a third world country.