Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part Four

The 1960s television comedy, The Addams Family, had several episodes highlighting the family patriarch, Gomez, running his electric trains on intercept courses, accompanied by explosions as the two locomotives ran full speed into each other.  Watching the show, it was something we looked forward to seeing, on the rare occasion it happened.  In those days the term, “unable to look away when witnessing a train wreck” had an expectational gist to it.

These days, that term means something different; to be “It’s like seeing a train wreck; you can’t look away” is a metaphor for: expecting disaster so acutely that, when proven right, it is impossible to avert your eyes – whether physical eyes or mind’s eyes – from the tragedy playing out in front of you.

Last week we reviewed some data recorded in The International Journal of Aviation (IJI), Aeronautics and Aerospace: Evaluating Small UAS Near Midair Collision Risk Using AeroScope and ADS-B.  The paper gave the reader an understanding of how far we have come and yet how far we have to go regarding small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) platforms – hobby or toy aircraft.  One point the paper made in its first pages was pivotal to answering a question: Who will assure safety with sUAS platforms?

The paper lists an event where a US Army Sikorsky UH-60M was hit by a Phantom 4 sUAS (National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Accident number DCA17IA202) while the helicopter was part of military operations being conducted near Hoffman Island, NY.  The helicopter suffered damage to its main rotor, but landed successfully; the Phantom was destroyed.  The NTSB identified the sUAS by its unique serial number found in the wreckage; the FAA then traced the sUAS back to the owner.  The probable cause of the accident was “the failure of the sUAS ‘pilot’ to see and avoid the helicopter due to his [the sUAS operator’s] intentional flight beyond visual line of sight.”

The paper stated in a section titled ‘Problem’, that, “That the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has undertaken varied efforts to contain the problem of unsafe or non-compliant sUAS operations.  From June 2007 to May 2018, the FAA pursued [enforcement] action against 518 sUAS operators;” this information was provided by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  The IJI article further stated that, “In a rebuke to the FAA, the GAO concluded that FAA safety efforts are hindered by a lack of reliable sUAS operations data.”

The GAO is part of the Legislative Branch of the United States government; it has responsibility for auditing the other Departments that answer to Congress.  Although providing a means to assure the different Departments are meeting their assignments and are properly funded, they do not specialize in areas, e.g. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms.  To this point, the GAO states in the previous paragraph, that the FAA has been pursuing actions against sUAS operations since 2007 to present.  For the first nine years of that time, the FAA has restricted its UAV attentions strictly to the safety aspect.  The FAA had not been pursuing oversight of UAVs since there were no regulations or policies that gave them authorization.  Instead the FAA was trying to prevent UAVs from having accidents with manned aircraft, e.g. following up on reported near misses, UAV strikes and UAV sightings where trespassing in the National Airspace System (NAS) has occurred.

Yes, there is a difference.  The regulations for UAVs relating to the unmanned aerial system (UAS) are only two years old; their introduction was June 28, 2016.  The time needed to write Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 107 – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, took between three and five years to author the forty-four subparts – 107.1 through 107.205 – that are listed today.  For the time the FAA and industry wrote the regulations, the FAA was not regulating the UAS, while they were regulating the airspace they were being operated in.

I stated last week that the IJI paper is valuable beyond the data collected; it points out a serious flaw in the direction UAS oversight and safety is going.  Ironically in 1958, if the Department of Transportation could have foreseen the rise of the UAS, would they have trusted the FAA with oversight of the program?  My guess would be they would not.  It is not due to competence, but to several aspects: priorities with manned aircraft, technology, finances and manning.

To be clear, the FAA is chiefly responsible for manned flight; that is their priority: aircraft from crop dusters to airliners, from tour helicopters to oil rig helicopters.  The oversight of unmanned vehicles is, frankly, too far beyond the FAA’s capacity as it stands today.  Unfortunately, being the regulator of the skies, the FAA has been volunteered without a say; painted in a corner; victims of their own success.  Metaphors aside, the FAA is out of their depth.

The technology is not there yet, even for collecting data on near misses or trespassing inside airport perimeters.  The push for the FAA to register sUAS platforms was put off for months as lawsuits successfully stymied the program; the lawsuits were later reversed, the registration program was found to be justified and started up again, but at a loss of time.  In the IJI report, the research team employed a Dà Jiāng Innovations (DJI) Aeroscope, a high tech sensor that finds sUAS … but only DJI sUAS.  Does the technology exist to find all brands of sUAS?  Will the technology be able to not just identify any sUAS platform, but determine its speed, direction, altitude, size, threat, owner, etc. effectively?

Speaking from a finances perspective, how will this technology be paid for?  Will DJI Aeroscope devices need to be leased or purchased?  How many would be required per square mile?  Will building owners allow an Aeroscope to be mounted or will they charge rent?  Who pays for these things?  And how many inspectors would need to be hired to meet the sUAS oversight need?

That last question brings us to manning.  Newly-hired aviation safety inspector (ASI) training classes have dropped dramatically in number over the last few years; hiring has been mostly dedicated to replacing the retiring ASI workforce, to stay in front of growing air operators and an increasing number of certificate holders.  Certificate management offices and flight standards district offices are dedicated to manned flight; they are already outnumbered with regards to manned oversight and surveillance.  Finding qualified UAV-experienced ASIs who can adequately perform oversight is yet to be put into effect; the future sUAS ASIs are simply not out there.

Previously, changes in the industry have been incremental.  From propeller-driven intercontinental aircraft to jets; from four-pilot to two-pilot aircraft; from analog technology to digital technology, the FAA’s many divisions have been able to stay in front of the times.  The UAS, however, is vastly different.  Mechanically speaking, there is no basis for how long a UAV can operate before heavy maintenance; what constitutes maintenance or even what systems will be important – don’t forget, no pilots.  From the Operations side, are they certificated like a pilot if an sUAS is operated in the NAS?  How will they be drug tested, according to what drug program and how is that enforced?  Does Little Johnny have the same restrictions that Captain John has when operating an sUAS around manned aircraft?

Most importantly, how does the FAA assure every sUAS is operated to the highest level of safety per Title 14 CFR Parts 107, 91, 43, 65 and so on?  How does the FAA get its arms around the rising number of UAVs and their operators?  This is the conversation that the aviation industry should be having.


This wave could not have come at a worse time in history.  America’s complacent belief that we have the safest aviation system ever is a myth; it is a false illusion.  Safety is not guaranteed by achieving a goal but by constantly raising the bar.  However, organizations, e.g. the NTSB, will run with the ‘Skies-are-Safe’ routine because it gives the flying public a warm feeling; it’s not necessarily true.  The ability to regulate the airspace of the size and complexity of the United States cannot be compared to the safety needs of an airspace over, e.g. France, Great Britain or Japan.  There is no comparison, yet aviation safety professionals make the comparison, nonetheless.

If the industry chooses to ignore the UAS wave overtaking them, then they, too, fall into complacent denial; they are renouncing the pending perfect storm.  Complacency is like a train wreck; one cannot look away.  Instead one becomes fixated on what should have been done differently when there was time.  All the while, the tragedy unfolds in slow motion.  The wakeup call is coming; it will be devastating.

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