Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part Eight

Tracking equipment picture credited to

Beginning in November 2016, with Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Parts One and Two; then in October 2018 with Parts Three and Four; March 2019 was Parts Five and Six. In May 2019, I wrote Part Seven, but consequently I became preoccupied with a new position and a writing project, so I never returned to Part Eight. It is time I remedied that oversight.

The unmanned aerial system (UAS) and the national airspace system (NAS) conversation has been in need of dedicated professionals who understand the industry, who also comprehend the need for rules. The fourth Article (study) had been written by Ryan Wallace, Kristy Kiernan, John Robbins, all of Embry-Riddle University; Tom Haritos of Kansas State University and Jon Loffi of Oklahoma State University, titled: Evaluating Small UAS Operations and National Airspace System Interference Using AeroScope. The Article was printed in the Journal of Aviation Technology and Engineering (JATE) 8:2 (2019) 24-39. In the four studies the Authors build up to an uncomfortable reality of rules gone missing.

The first sentence in the report states, “A recent rash of near mid-air collisions coupled with the widespread proliferation of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) raise concerns that integration is posing additional risk to the NAS”. What were the authors referring to when they stated, “… integration is posing additional risk to the NAS”? The sale and use of sUAS vehicles, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has grown. Consequently, as per Rupprecht Law website, before 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had little to do with UAVs. Aside from publishing Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 in 1981. This AC provided guidance for those who operate UAVs as hobbies or recreationally. There are two takeaways from this AC: for one it was not regulatory, ACs never were.

For two it was 1981; many UAVs were tethered in those days or had extremely limited radio-control range. Looking in the rearview mirror, was the FAA wrong to lose sight of the UAS industry? Perhaps. If you listen to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the FAA was to blame for everything from world hunger to Who shot JR, also from the 80s. However, much of the UAS advancements came under military testing that was then later adopted into private industry. The military was out of the FAA’s purview. Blame or no blame, the UAS industry boom caught everyone, including those who employed the NAS, off guard.

In 2007, the FAA put out a statement, “The FAA recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS with the mistaken understanding that they are legally operating under the authority AC 91-57.” During the original struggle to get NextGen and other much needed programs off the ground, the FAA tried to stem the confusion that the UAS industry presented. Soon after, Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 107 was begun. But the federal regulations cannot be adopted overnight; they must succumb to the regulation writing process, which takes, on average, five to seven years and costs in excess of five million dollars to write – per section; Part 107 presently consists of twenty-eight sections. Who is part of this process? Everyone, from the pilots’ unions to airlines to government to lawyers. In June 2016, Title 14 CFR Part 107: Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems debuted.

How does one qualify for a UAS remote pilot certificate? As per Title 14 CFR Part 107.61, one must:

  1. Be at least 16 years of age;
  2. Be able to read, speak and understand the English language;
  3. Be mentally and physically able to safely operate an unmanned vehicle, and;
  4. Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by passing a knowledge test as specified in 107.31(a) OR, in short, the person holds a pilot certificate under Part 61 and received familiarity training.

To operate a UAV or sUAS in the NAS, one must meet these requirements. And this leads back to the study in JATE previously mentioned. The report first refers to data provided by Gettinger and Michael in 2015 that showed 931 UAV-to-airliner reported incidents, some taking place by airports such as Los Angeles and Newark International airports. These were visual sightings and close to or within the airport’s approach route. That was a summary of the report’s data but gave one an idea of the irresponsible behavior of some sUAS operators playing ‘chicken’ with the safety of passenger aircraft. To clarify, a narrow-body jet approaches an airport in excess of 130 to 150 knots. At that speed, a UAV could penetrate an airplane’s cockpit by flying through the windscreen or through the radome, killing the pilots before they even realized what happened.

Four years later, in Spring 2019, the JATE study took a more involved look at how to gather data. Using manufacturer-specific tracking availability, the authors measured more accurately the altitudes being violated, the airport perimeters trespassed, the approaches endangered, and times of operation ignored. The findings were not good news for the NAS. One might argue that the study authors are a group of Killjoys with a Jiminy Cricket conscience complex, but they are not. In fact, they represent a very pro-UAS group of educators and professionals in world-renowned aviation education institutions.

And to be clear, the authors’ tracking used specific equipment sold by a manufacturer with 70% market share of unmanned vehicles sold; the equipment could only track that specific manufacturer’s vehicles. The study took place in two major airports AND could not detect 30% of the UAVs presently owned and operated. The authors recommended aligning operational rules. The study stated, “The authors assert the large numbers of potential violations assessed under 14 CFR 107 rules are indicative of growing systemic risks in the NAS posed by unmanned aircraft operations. Based on the high proportions of hobbyist registrations in the sample area, the authors suspect that the majority of detected sUAS operations represent hobbyist activity or flights not otherwise carried out under 14 CFR 107 provisions.” The authors also recommend, “… Congress consider revocation of the preamble contained in Section 336(a) of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which would allow the FAA to codify and impose reasonable operational limitations on hobbyist and model aircraft activity to protect the safety of the NAS.” The preamble is too lengthy for this article; it is highly recommended that the JATE studies and the Section 336(a) preamble be read in their entirety.

What are we to ascertain from the study’s findings and recommendations? This article interpreted that the study made clear that bad actors within the UAS industry still act irresponsibly and in stealth, that they represent a real threat to aviation safety and the NAS. These concerns cannot be ignored; there must be swift and clear action nationwide or we will find ourselves staring into a smoking hole.

In addition, this article finds that the FAA is not up to the task of policing the UAS alone. The authors were well equipped for this study and were looking for specific findings; the FAA is not. Just as the FAA was late to the post-AC 91-57 world, the FAA cannot expect to become properly manned, trained and equipped with the latest technology by 2007 – that’s right, twelve years ago. Already they are late to the game and Congress shows no sign of relieving or aiding them in this losing strategy.

This is serious stuff folks. No quippy conclusion; no positive spin; no hopeful advice. Soon there won’t even be a can to kick down the road.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XXX: Chalk’s Ocean Airways Flight 101

On December 19, 2005, Flying Boat, Inc. dba as Chalk’s Ocean Airways, flight 101, a Grumman Turbo Mallard (G-73T) amphibious airplane, registration number N2969, crashed off Port of Miami, Florida. The Mallard, a regularly scheduled flight to Bimini, Bahamas, had taken off moments before from the Miami Seaplane Base; the right wing departed the aircraft during climb and the Mallard plunged back into the Atlantic Ocean.

The root cause of the accident was corrosion that weakened the wing structure, in this case the right wing. The flexing of the wings during flight operations; the loads placed on the wings and the weakening of the aircraft’s integrity by corrosion eventually overwhelmed the wing’s structural strength; the wing catastrophically separated from the aircraft.

The aircraft, fifty-eight-years old at the time, was operated in a most hostile of aviation environments: saltwater and considerable humidity. The airplane was not just operated near saltwater, it was operated in saltwater. Because of this metal hazardous environment, corrosion was always a threat to the structure and the engines. Any gaps in the skin or moving components, e.g. flight controls, were susceptible; the two detrimental agents: salt and water, would easily hide within the crevasses and joints of aircraft components and require regular evacuating.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as part of the accident investigation, focused attention on the Flying Boat, Inc.’s continuous airworthiness maintenance program (CAMP) and continuing analysis and surveillance system (CASS). Per accident report AAR-07/04, “As part of its CAMP and CASS program, Chalk’s Ocean Airways was required to monitor the mechanical performance of the flying fleet by collecting and analyzing data.” The CASS program was part of the CAMP and was dependent on the quality of data provided; the CASS was useless if the data was less than adequate or corrupted.

The concept of maintenance programs as they are today was born of the maintenance steering group (MSG) program. As per, “… ‘Operator/Manufacturer Scheduled Maintenance Development’ is a document … The main idea behind this concept is to recognize the inherent reliability of aircraft systems and components …” MSG-1 was organized in 1968 for the B747s; MSG-2 was developed for scheduled maintenance for 1970s vintage aircraft and MSG-3 was first published in 1980; MSG-3 focused on ‘consequences of failure’.

The exact dates of the MSG were not important except to show when the programs came about. The aircraft designed and built before MSG-1 were not required to be included in the MSG retroactively; they were required, as part of their certification, to have a maintenance program built that would capture necessary maintenance requirements.

The accident aircraft, registration number N2969, was manufactured in May 1947. As part of its certification requirements, Flying Boat Inc.’s CAMP was developed; that included the CASS. In addition, Flying Boat was required per Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 121.1105 (December 2002) to have an Aging Airplane Inspections and Records Review (AAIRR). Part121.1105 applied to “… all airplanes operated by a certificate holder under this part [121] …” Per paragraph (b)(1), the operator could not operate an airplane unless they had an aging aircraft inspection and records review for, “Airplanes exceeding 24 years … not to exceed 7 years.” Operators, such as Flying Boat, had to prove “that the maintenance of age-sensitive parts and components of the airplane has been adequate and timely enough to ensure the highest degree of safety.” The review was completed in October 2005.

Why did the review miss what led to flight 101’s accident? On July 18, 2002, a Consolidated-Vultee P4Y-2 crashed in Estes Park, Colorado (accident number DEN02GA074). The aircraft, operating as a fire fighter, suffered a left-wing separation during a ‘drop’ maneuver. The aircraft impacted terrain. The P4Y-2 was manufactured as a bomber in 1944 during World War II.

One of the findings I made investigating this accident and another involving a C130A in California two months earlier (accident number LAX02GA201) with a dual wing separation, was that the operator of both aircraft, Hawkins and Powers (H&P), had CAMP and CASS-type programs designed for their P4Y-2, C130 and other models in their fleet. In conversation with the H&P chief inspector, it was learned that the fleet did not have a corrosion prevention and control program (CPCP) as part of their maintenance program.

November 29, 1993, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Order 8300.12, Corrosion Prevention and Control Programs. The corrosion programs were dependent on the requirements of the manufacturer’s Baseline Program. The CPCPs were aimed at commercial aircraft whose age was substantial, e.g. B727, DC-8 and BAC1-11. Using the manufacturer’s baseline, operators of older aircraft could have used the manufacturer’s program or generate one acceptable to the FAA and the manufacturer.

The CPCP program, as described in FAA Order 8300.12, was a comprehensive and effective program that could have been designed to meet the needs of any aircraft built before the required date. The Order spelled out how the program worked, was revised and the recording of data. The surveillance of the program included actions required at different corrosion levels. This would have given the FAA Principle Maintenance Inspector for Flying Boats, Inc. a blueprint to approve a successful program. Per AAR-07/04, Flying Boats, Inc. did not have a CPCP for the Mallard fleet.

Consolidated-Vultee, manufacturer of the H&P’s P4Y-2, was no longer in business. Furthermore, the P4Y-2 was not required to follow FAA Order 8300.12 due to its age. However, at the time, it was the failure of H&P to have a CPCP in place that allowed, among other things, for the aircrafts’ corrosion and structural degradations to go unnoticed. In the G-73T Mallard’s case, corrosion had infiltrated the wing structure and fuselage so severely it was difficult to determine where metal began, and sealant ended. The wings suffered from many types of corrosion effects, e.g. crevice or environmental cracking. N2969 and her sister aircraft, were flying on borrowed time.

The CPCP, AAIRR, CAMP or other acronym and alphabet programs did not fail to capture the data; the FAA did not miss the signs; the NTSB did not fail to pass on what it knew. What destroyed the Mallard and the two H&P planes was a lack of common sense; this was the root cause of all these accidents. Grumman never expected that the G-73T would have as long a life as it did, operated as a regularly scheduled airliner into the next century. Consolidated-Vultee never designed the P4Y-2 to fly through mountain passes. It was a bomber; it was not designed for the incredible stresses of a firefighter.

As early as 1988, aircraft manufacturers were handed a cold plate of reality when Aloha Airlines flight 243 nearly came apart in flight. Flight hours, how many hours an aircraft spent flying, long thought to be the standard of measure of an aircraft’s lifespan, would need to be replaced with a more telling measure: flight cycles, which measured how many times a plane took off/landed. Aloha 243 was the catalyst to limiting commercial airliner lifetimes. Common sense won out.

Flying Boats, Inc. operated outside the norm as did H&P. The industry gave little thought to flying boats; there were bigger airplanes to worry about. Manufacturers saw no money in designing amphibious 18-seated airplanes or firefighters. Common sense had no means to cultivate in an industry that took no notice. Meanwhile, Mother Nature, often thought by the arrogant to be placed under control, will always play the last card.