FAA reacts to ‘Deadly Express’ articles

NBAA Convention News » 2006
November 13, 2006, 5:50 AM

A series of articles in the Miami Herald that took a look at the safety of air-cargo operations has exposed what the articles’ author seems to view as the ugly underbelly of commercial aviation. To hear the paper tell it, the air-cargo industry is a business rife with lawbreaking operators, pilots pushed to fly while dangerously fatigued and old airplanes that barely hold together.

The series, published in early July, has prompted the FAA to issue a fact sheet countering claims made in the stories, especially about a lack of agency oversight.

The series, called “Deadly Express” and written by Miami Herald reporter Ronnie Greene, takes advantage of modern Web publishing, with photographs and links to accident reports and audio clips by a dead pilot’s mother, a former Emery Air Freight pilot, a small-airplane cargo pilot and the wife of a pilot who crashed near Baltimore.

Cargo aircraft, the article explained, are crashing into houses, on golf courses, near shopping centers, “in some cases, just missing clusters of people.” Also, the airplanes’ “bellies are filled with potential hazards…ferrying explosives, poisons, oxidizers, corrosives, flammable liquids, gases, batteries, aerosols, nitric acid and sulfuric acid, FAA records show.” [That trucks and trains carry far more hazardous materials seems not to be an issue for the author.–Ed.]

At right are highlights of claims made in the Miami Herald series. Space constraints preclude an in-depth examination of the factual basis of each of the claims, but interested readers can view the series to see what started all the fuss at www. miami.com/multimedia/miami/news/archive/deadlyexpress/partone/index.html.

FAA Response

The FAA sent its letter and a fact sheet to the Miami Herald in response to the “Deadly Express” series over the summer. The letter noted that the number of small cargo-carrier accidents has “declined dramatically over the last six years” to five fatal accidents in 2005 from 13 in 2000. So far this year the downward trend has continued, with 10 accidents–four of them fatal–through June. The FAA attributes the improvement not to FAA inspectors micromanaging their operators but to focusing on risk assessment and management, aeronautical decision-making and high-quality training.

“The Herald,” the FAA letter stated, “in its haste to write an inflammatory story, failed to ask the one basic question that should have come first: Is there a real problem?  The proof to the contrary is right there in the numbers.”

The FAA fact sheet responded to specific parts of the “Deadly Express” articles, elaborating the points made in the letter, including the fact that the entire industry, not just the agency, is responsible for safety. The FAA also obliquely addressed the Miami Herald’s accusation that the fatigued pilot was forced to fly when he wasn’t safely rested. “Under regulations that have been in place for decades, a pilot who feels physically unfit to fly, or believes his aircraft cannot be flown safely, has a responsibility not to take off.” The FAA also noted that it applies resources to the small air-cargo industry by focusing on risk, deploying resources to areas with the greatest potential safety benefit.

As for specific issues with the Caravan and MU-2, the agency listed the efforts it has made to ensure the safe operation of those airplanes. These include two earlier special certification reviews and a recent evaluation of the MU-2 that prompted new training requirements for MU-2 pilots (something that Mitsubishi has requested for many years) and operational changes to help pilots deal with Caravan icing issues. The FAA conceded that “the Cessna 208 has unique structures that can accumulate ice under certain conditions.” And “the MU-2 is a complex airplane requiring piloting techniques more typical of jet aircraft rather than light turboprops, especially in emergency situations.”

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