(December 2011) Three and a half years ago I wrote about the Mitsubishi MU-2 controversy (“Dangerous Airplanes or Dangerous Pilots?” — May 2008). For much of its life, the MU-2 had the unenviable status of having one of the worst turboprop accident rates and fatal accident rates. People wrote articles questioning the sanity of anyone who would fly such a dangerous airplane, and a congressman even introduced legislation that would require the airplane to be recalled, an option that was seriously considered by the FAA. However, there was another side to this story. First, there were several other turboprops that had equally bad or even slightly worse accident rates, and yet no one was writing nasty articles about them or saying they should be recalled. Even more curious, the MU-2 was only dangerous in the United States. In Europe it had an excellent safety record, and even here in the United States there were many people who loved the MU-2 and had operated it safely for many years.
The only difference between operating an MU-2 in Europe and flying one in the United States was that European countries required a type rating to fly the MU-2.
In the United States, even though the MU-2 is a very high performance airplane with complicated systems that has to be flown like a jet, because it weighs less than 12,500 pounds there was no requirement for a pilot to get any training or pass a check ride before flying one. Any multi-engine-rated pilot could jump in an MU-2 without even getting a checkout and legally take off. For a pilot used to flying a Cessna 402 or a Navajo, an airplane that climbs at 2,000 fpm, cruises at 300 knots at FL 300 and descends at 4,000 fpm is going to be more than a challenge. The MU-2 also has some operating features and characteristics that require a response opposite of what a piston twin pilot would do. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been hard to get your hands on an MU-2, but because of its bad reputation, an MU-2 was about the least expensive turboprop, with airplanes available for the price of a high performance single-engine airplane.
When you add it all up — a very high performance airplane with unique operating characteristics available at dirt-cheap prices with no training or check ride required — you have a recipe for disaster. In reality, almost none of the MU-2 accidents were directly related to the airplane’s design. It was the same old stuff: not using a checklist, taking off downwind, taking off without the proper flap setting, taking off or continuing into weather the pilot was not rated for or prepared to handle, flying with known deficiencies in critical systems, fatigue, etc. It just was happening more frequently in the MU-2.
The solution to this problem was obvious to many people. For years Mitsubishi had pleaded with the FAA to increase the training requirements for the MU-2 and require a type rating. Even though the MU-2 was no longer in production, in 1994 Mitsubishi initiated free Pilot Review of Proficiency (PROP) seminars every two years at locations around the world in an attempt to increase the knowledge and proficiency of MU-2 owners and operators. The FAA did a study and found that there was a growing awareness of the need for professional training to safely operate the MU-2, with many operators providing their own in-house training.
Systems and simulator training was also available from SimCom. This voluntary training initiative was having a positive impact, with the MU-2 accident rate reduced by half over a five-year period and with most of the continuing accidents involving pilots who had not had simulator training.