Aircraft Accidents, UAVs and Finding Nero

There is very little proof that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned, especially since the fiddle did not exist at Nero’s time. It’s the expression that matters; it is meant to allow us to envision one who just wants to see the world burn, for selfish reasons. The unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry knows about their Neros and they are hiding in plain sight.

Before this author analyzes the latest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) study by Doctors Wallace, Vance, Loffi, Jacob and Dunlap: Cleared to Land: Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft During Final Approach, next week, it is probably best to explain why the Neros of the UAS industry are going to destroy any progress the UAS industry has made.

UAVs continue to threaten air commerce, whether airliners, corporate operators, banner towers, crop dusters or aerial fire-fighters; irresponsible children with UAVs are endangering lives and property, both in the air and on the ground. Why would they do this? Why would someone shine a laser at an inbound airliner when they know the light blinds the pilots? The child wants to see the world burn. View a video, FAA investigates drone flying near news choppers:

If we wait for an accident, that would require a year-long National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation; it would also be futile. Waiting for an accident is reactive and deadly. In addition, the NTSB’s track record is in question. They will punt by blaming the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for everything, which does not address the safety issues or fix the problems. Besides, the NTSB fundamentally does not even understand the FAA.

Since it was determined that the FAA will have sole jurisdiction over the oversight of the UAS industry, no one has taken time to establish just what that means or how successful that mission will be. There are many consequences to not exploring this assignment proactively, to conveying responsibilities based on the sole logic that the FAA has the word ‘Aviation’ in its title.

To be fair, let us discuss the facts of the situation; let us look at the FAA’s Operations side of UAS oversight, since it is the Operations aviation safety inspector (ASI) who works with UAS operations. Airworthiness handles the maintenance side, but it would be the Operations side that would oversee all UAS pilots and operators, such as pilot certification, testing, enforcement and giving the UAS operator his/her operator certification. They would also be responsible for safety violations with UAVs that fly too low, too high, within restricted airspace, etc. To be clear, these ASIs occupy one third of a flight standards district office (FSDO), the office that would oversee UAS issues in a specific area.

What does that mean? Let us look at an average FAA FSDO: the Portland, Maine FSDO. There are only twenty operations ASIs working 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday. They oversee three states: Vermont (17 usable airports), New Hampshire (29 usable airports) and Maine (40 usable airports), whose combined area is 54,358 square miles; that’s 2718 square miles per operations ASI. Each operations ASI normally oversees ten to twenty air operators; then there are flight schools, designated examiners, hundreds of helicopter and fixed-wing pilots. Incidentally, less than half of these ASIs have been trained on, or are familiar with, UAVs.

UAV operators can number in the thousands in those states. That means there is one ASI to oversee thousands of certificate holders each, across three states. Major airports like Manchester, Burlington and Portland are under these twenty ASIs’ jurisdiction; that does not include the 83 other airports that regularly report UAV infractions, e.g. trespassing over airport airspace, busted altitudes or flying within an airport’s approach pattern. If a UAV violates the airspace in Burlington, the FSDO is not situated nearby to respond; in fact, the operations ASI is ten hours away, depending on flight availability and/or highway traffic.

During this recent upturn in the economy, the aviation industry has experienced a rise in employment opportunities, pilot jobs particularly. It is financially beneficial for pilots to seek out jobs in the industry; those jobs pay far better than the government does. This affects the number of operations ASIs leaving government positions, as well as those who are no longer looking at government as a viable job opportunity to apply for. Then there are those operations ASIs retiring, which is on the rise. What the FAA ends up with is a shortage of qualified operations ASIs, many of whom have no UAS experience.

Many UAS social media commenters are short-sided critics; they speak from emotion, not common sense. “If anything happens, it’s the FAA’s fault. They’ve been dragging their feet.” Just like the NTSB, these critics do not understand how things work. It is far easier to blame everyone else. If you don’t believe that, turn on the news and see how much government is addressing problems in their own states. In short, government is not the answer.

What happens, then, if the UAV problem continues to get worse? For those who need a history lesson on just how businesses can be devastated by consequences, in 1978, American Flight 191 crashed in Chicago. American Airlines, it was learned, cheated on the engine installation and caused the accident. However, the DC-10 was grounded for over a month; many airlines, e.g. Laker Airways, were hit hard by American Airlines’ incompetence. There are other examples: The Boeing B737-MAX, which has been grounded for months and which the investigatory groups still have not gotten right. It does not matter if the investigatory groups got it wrong, the airlines suffer financially.

The shuttle Challenger caused a two-and-a-half-year grounding; the shuttle Columbia, two years. Each shuttle disaster resulted in millions of dollars lost by companies whose businesses depended on satellite launches; they had to wait in line for years for future shuttle opportunities or invested in more expensive launch vehicles.

At no time during these groundings did anyone from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the FAA get their pay interrupted. However, with American 191 many domestic airlines were hurt due to the grounding of a wide-body aircraft; many international airlines could not fly into the United States; their businesses were hit hard. Thousands of flights were cancelled, jobs were liquidated and profits from restructuring delays were lost.

How many UAS businesses are willing to lose it all because of a few irresponsible children? Whether your business is real estate, mapping or website building, if a UAV causes a major accident, the UAS industry will be hard-down grounded – not might be, will be! UAS businesses will be financially devastated by these children who continue to threaten aviation safety. And when the grounding is over, how long will the aviation industry make you suffer for what had happened? How long will they work to block UAVs from re-entering the national airspace? Their lobbyists are more vocal and well-funded.

Many may argue that the FAA authorizes some uncertificated pilots to fly ultralight aircraft, with nothing more than a driver’s license. Argue all you want; nobody cares about these arguments because these ultralight pilots only endanger themselves. They won’t get sucked into an aircraft engine or crash through a windscreen at 130 knots. If the ultralight pilot defies the regulations or laws of physics, they are the casualties – not strangers, not families killed in the crash.

Doctors Wallace and his co-authors have been putting these series of studies out for years; they are invaluable. They are trying to open the eyes of the UAS industry to police yourselves, create the tracking technologies and educate the children. Find these Neros and get in front of their irresponsible behaviors; prevent them from watching the world burn. The consequences will not just be your short-term industry plans. The consequences will be that your businesses will go up in smoke.

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