Only a few days ago a former Nationals Party president from WA, Mr Gerry Gould, lost his life in an air crash at Geraldton. The accident, involving a sport aircraft – a Lancair Legacy - rather than a “Cessna” as was erroneously stated in some media reports, brings to mind air safety recommendations originally made following fatal accidents in 2006 with similar types of aircraft.
Specifically, should transitional training guidance by the regulator (ie, on transitioning from flying light aircraft to flying sport, or experimental aircraft) be more rigorous than is currently the case? And, were the recommendations from 2006 fully implemented?
This author would suggest that there is need to revisit this question, whether or not these matters are implicated as a factor in the case of Mr Gould’s accident. Broadly, it is of concern to the aviation community to ensure safety recommendations from previous crashes have been fully implemented to assure, as far as practically possible, future air safety.
Transitioning from light aircraft to sport
Aircraft like the Lancair Legacy, which is available as a kit, are sleek and sporty with different handling characteristics and peculiarities to general aviation/light aircraft. This accounts for much of the attraction for recreational pilots and enthusiasts.
Analysis published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) shows that experimental aircraft have an accident rate of 42.5 accidents per 100,000 hours flown whereas typical general aviation (or light aircraft) have 16.8 accidents per 100,000 hours flown.
Accordingly, there is a concern that pilots who transition from modern general light aircraft (such as those made by Cessna and Piper) to the sleeker and sportier experimental class of aircraft are not adequately required by the regulator to receive the kinds of training and information which would identify the particular risks of such flying compared to the risks of general aviation. That is not to say that it does not happen in some form, as these are known risks. However, there is an absence of regulatory attention when compared to other jurisdictions. Ideally, the regulator should take more of an interest in this matter, especially considering the points set out below.
Lancair fatal accidents partly blamed on type unfamiliarity
In Australia the fatal accident record of Lancair Legacy variant aircraft types in Australia (eg, the Lancair 320 and 360), is largely attributed to deficiencies in the abilities of pilots to control such aircraft because of unfamiliarity with the slickness and handling characteristics of sport aircraft, after they transition from different aircraft types.
In 2006 CASA commissioned a panel to review Lancair operations in Australia following two fatal accidents in populated areas within five days of each other. These accidents involved a loss of control of an amateur built Lancair 320 four kilometres away from Archerfield Airport in Queensland on 31 March 2006, and a loss of engine power in an amateur built Lancair 360 at Bankstown Airport in New South Wales on 5 April 2006. The CASA review panel report made three recommendations. These were:
- That an article be published in CASA’s Flight Safety Australia publication;
- That guidance material for transition and recurrent training be developed for flight crew of high performance experimental aircraft; and
- That guidance material on risk assessment and mitigation be developed for authorised persons to ensure third party risks are appropriately considered when issuing an experimental certificate.
In relation to the first recommendation a useful article called “Slick Singles” was published in an edition of Flight Safety Australia, written by CASA’s test pilot. This talked about some of the dangers of transitioning from traditional general aviation aircraft to sportier models with different handling and operating characteristics.
In relation to the third recommendation, CASA has included risk assessment requirements in its Advisory Circular (AC) AC 21-10(2) on Experimental Certificates. The purpose of this AC is to introduce fundamental measures of risk management when experimental aircraft are operated for testing during development or modification. There are no regulations to limit the risks involved in these kinds of flight for experimental aircraft, and perhaps reasonably – for example, one would expect the risks to be quite high in initial flights of newly designed or substantially modified aircraft. However, the AC is helpful to moderate those risks.
Pinning down the recommended guidance material in relation to the second recommendation is much more difficult. In Australia the available guidance material published by CASA on experimental aircraft is more geared towards certification and construction of such aircraft, rather than transitioning pilots to their successful operation.
By way of contrast, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released an Advisory Circular (90-109) in March 2011 providing information and guidance to owners and pilots of experimental aircraft with recommendations for training experience for pilots of such aircraft based on performance and handling characteristics. That helps pilots transition to experimental or unfamiliar aircraft from light aircraft which have more benign handling characteristics, and implicitly recognises that amateur-built and other experimental aircraft constitute the fastest growing segment of general aviation.
It would be useful if the FAA Advisory Circular was brought to the attention of sport aircraft pilots in Australia by way of a CASA Advisory Circular or Pilot Guide, to ensure this prudent factor in accident prevention is seen to have been considered, and potentially adapted for local conditions, by Australia’s peak air safety regulator. Ideally CASA would work closely with the locally acknowledged expert body of pilots, builders, and enthusiasts which build and operate such aircraft - the Sport Aircraft Association of Australia (SAAA) - on a suitable solution.
Like most areas of civil air safety regulation in Australia, we must remember that efficiencies can often be gained by looking to the largest aviation market in the world, the US, for guidance.
The latest from the ATSB on the 18 September 2013 accident
The ATSB, Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and publicly available online sources indicate Mr Gould’s aircraft was originally professionally built in the United States in 2003, but first registered in Australia in 2010. Interim information released by the ATSB on 1 October 2013 indicates that the aircraft’s canopy was observed to have opened during the take-off roll.
While that is not in itself typically a cause for concern, it has been known to cause accidents when it happens at high speed. The ATSB thus advised:
… owners, operators and pilots of aircraft with canopies to review the adequacy of their existing measures that are intended to ensure canopies are securely latched before flight (such as pre-take-off checks and warning systems), and the actions in case of inadvertent canopy opening during take-off.
While the ultimate causes of this accident will not be settled until ATSB investigators have thoroughly looked at all alternatives, it is notable that worldwide, several sport aircraft have been lost as a result of uncommanded canopy openings and such accidents have resulted in numerous fatalities.