More safety rules for skydive flights in dispute between federal agencies

Always Investigating

The North Shore skydiving plane crash and other recent fatal air accidents have renewed the call to fix what some say are shortcomings and inconsistences in rules that govern air flights.

Between Hawaii skydiving and helicopter fatalities, and airplane tragedies elsewhere, crash investigators, lawmakers and victims’ advocates questioning why small aircraft operators aren’t regulated more strictly.

It’s a clash that’s pitted two major federal agencies against each other, and has Hawaii’s congressional delegation leading the charge for change.

Long before Friday’s deadly skydive plane crash, the National Transportation Safety Board chronicled problems with parachute aircraft regulations, after investigating 32 plane-related accidents that killed 172 parachuters and pilots between 1980 and 2008. Dozens more have died since.

“Paying passengers should be able to count on an airworthy plane, an adequately trained pilot, a safe operator and adequate federal oversight of those operations,” said Jennifer Homendy, NTSB board member, told the press at a Monday news briefing following Friday’s fatal Oahu Parachute Center crash.

Passengers may not be aware, when they board different kinds of aircraft, that the stringent training, maintenance and inspection requirements that cover big commercial airlines — called Part 121 regulations — don’t all apply to smaller charter planes, helicopter tours, or air taxis, which are classified under Part 135. And fewer regulations are expected of Part 91 operators, the small non-commercial aircraft category that includes skydiving planes.

There are still difference in the operation between a parachute jump operation and, say, Part 135 air tour operators,” Homendy said, “and we think there shouldn’t be differences.”

Eight out of 11 NTSB recommendations to make skydiving planes safer were implemented between the industry’s membership body — The U.S. Parachute Association — and the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses air operators. Better seatbelts, monitoring and guidance for inspections, and operator education about quality assurance were among the improvements.

“Just as skydiving itself has become measurably safer over the last several years, and not by a little but by a lot, flights on skydiving aircraft are demonstrably safer as well,” Ed Scott, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association told KHON2.

But for more than a decade the FAA hasn’t budged on three recommendations NTSB still considers essential, recommendations covering things like aircraft maintenance, FAA oversight, pilot training and pilot testing.

“We would like them to follow through with those,” Homendy said regarding FAA’s reticence, “but they have not.”

The FAA has disputed the NTSB’s pilot-related points, saying FAA has no evidence pilots don’t have the skills the NTSB wants proven.

The FAA also says it can’t legally enforce some of the recommendations on Part 91 operators, which includes skydive planes, the lower level of aircraft regulation.

“If you feel you cannot adequately regulate these operations which are creating safety and community disruption risk, I’m certainly willing and able to assist in Congress to change your regulatory authority so you can do that,” U.S. Congressman Rep. Ed Case told Always Investigating. Case had already been working on drafting legislation to toughen small-carrier aircraft regulations following the deadly April tour helicopter crash in Kailua.

“This regulation is virtually nonexistent in this area,” Case said, “and frankly these operators are operating in really a wild-west environment that is risking the safety of their passengers and those on the ground, not to mention incredibly disrupting communities throughout Hawaii.”

He says he wants the FAA to be tougher now.

“I’m powering down as fast as I can,” Case said, regarding the bill he he is working on, “but it takes time to get legislation through Congress. In the meantime my focus is really on the FAA exerting the maximum level of its own flexibility, of its own existing regulatory authority to provide a much stronger level of scrutiny than it has to date.”

Always Investigating asked if Case things operators should be allowed to continue to fly while new regulations get figured out?

“That is very much dependent on what the NTSB is finding preliminarily,” Case said. “When there is a failure of recognition of risk and consequence, that’s when you start to think maybe we can’t trust these people at all and maybe we do need to place a moratorium in effect until we figure out what is going on.”

An FAA spokesperson told Always Investigating: “Safety is always our top priority, and the FAA bases our decisions on data. The FAA must have evidence of a regulatory violation to take action against an operator. At this point, the investigations into both accidents (Kailua and Mokuleia) are in their very early stages. The FAA is aware of and sensitive to concerns expressed about aircraft safety. However, we have not at this time developed any information that would warrant taking action against either operator. That said, we can and we do take immediate action if the information that we and our partners develop during an investigation warrants doing so.”

“It’s heartbreaking to see this,” Case said of the latest fatal crashes, “and I think they would at least want us to take the lessons of this terrible tragedy and apply them so that other people do not suffer the same fate.”

As for the disagreement between NTSB and the FAA on the three unimplemented parachute-plane recommendations, the FAA told Always Investigating in a statement: “The safety of all aircraft operations is the FAA’s top priority. The FAA takes NTSB recommendations very seriously, and implemented a number of changes to address recommendations the NTSB made about parachuting operations. The FAA required its safety inspectors to conduct increased surveillance of parachute operations, revised the safety guidance we issued to parachute operators, and increased our safety outreach to the parachuting community. Parachute operators must follow existing regulations concerning pilot training and 100-flight-hour aircraft inspections.”

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