How Safe Will The New Mini Jets Be?

Mac looks for the weakest link and, guess what, it's not the airplanes.

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There has been much speculation about the safety of the many new mini jets now in development. It shocks me that there are more predictions about how these small jets will change aviation, including the safety record, than there is speculation about whether the airplanes can even be delivered at the prices some promise. But let's dive into the frenzy and just assume that some of the five- and six-seat jets with predicted prices far below single engine turboprops do become a reality and hundreds, or maybe thousands, fill the sky.

First, I don't know of anybody who is worrying about the safety of the new jets in terms of structure or performance. Though all of the companies involved plan to certify under the FAR Part 23 small airplane rules, that won't be new. The Citation CJ series of business jets, and the Beech Premier, are certified to Part 23 standards, and those airplanes have had good safety records. The CJs and Premiers meet the same single-engine performance requirements for engine failure during takeoff as the larger jets certified under the FAR 25 transport category, which ensures the airplane can continue safely if the engine fails at the worst possible moment. Cessna plans to certify its mini jet, the Mustang, to those same transport category takeoff standards.

Other light jet companies haven't said they will do the same, but it's uncertain whether the FAA will allow the others to deviate from that precedent. If any of the small jets that actually reach production fail to meet the transport category engine-out takeoff profile, that would be a measurable diminution in safety potential compared with all other jets currently in service. But jet engine failures are quite rare, so I wouldn't expect takeoff engine problems in such an airplane to be a big part of its safety record in any case.

The obvious safety concern is, of course, the pilots who will fly the new small jets. One group that always worries the insurance industry and others in the aviation safety business is owner-pilots. Though most of the companies that are attempting to develop the small jets say they expect a new type of aerial town car service to develop around the low-cost airplanes, everyone agrees that the first group to fly the airplanes will be the pilots who buy them. After all, what pilot wouldn't buy a jet if it costs less than an unpressurized piston twin? The expected thousands of micro jets that follow into the anticipated air taxi system will be flown by "professional" pilots, but they also cause some concern because they will be, due to the entry level status of the job, less qualified than pilots who traditionally have found their way into the left seat of a chartered or corporate business jet. In other words, a bunch of rich guys with no experience and less sense will team up with thousands of newly minted commercial pilots to terrorize the flight levels, threatening all of us "qualified" people who are now allowed up there.

I say the worrywarts have got it all wrong. The new small jets will be safer than any airplane of similar size and value that they replace. The fact is jets are easier to fly than propeller airplanes. If you don't believe me, compare the safety record of the major airlines in the jet era to the record from the time when the big propeller airplanes ruled. Len Morgan and his contemporaries did not become better pilots when they advanced from DC-7s and Connies into the jets, so the credit for the immense safety improvement has to go to the airplane. In fact, if you took today's roster of airline pilots and stuck them back into airplanes with propellers, I'd bet my house the accident rate would jump by tenfold. The pilots would still have the same high skill level, but the propeller airplanes are just plain harder to fly and are less capable.

The same is true in small airplanes. Many light business jets are flown by owner-pilots, and the record has been good. Even the owner-flown turboprops have had a better safety record than piston airplanes. A turbine is easier to fly than a piston, and a jet is easier to fly than a turboprop. You can also apply another measure. The more an airplane costs, the easier it is to fly.

For example, the pilot of nearly all turboprop twins has automatic feathering to count on. If an engine quits, the auto- feather identifies, verifies and feathers the correct propeller in less than a second. The poor guy in the piston twin has to do all of that himself while maintaining control and nursing along a minimal climb rate, if there is any positive climb rate at all. Think about it. Which pilot has to be "better" to stay alive, the piston twin or turboprop pilot? And in a jet it's easier still because there is no prop to fool with, and there is ample engine-out performance to continue the takeoff and climb. You really can buy safety, and for the money, the jets deliver.

Another often repeated concern about the small jets is that "they will be flying around at 41,000 feet" with inexperienced yokels at the controls. So? The days of marginal flying qualities at very high altitudes are gone. The fearsome "coffin corner" where high speed and low speed buffets merge is now 60 or 80 knots, or more, wide. No competent aerodynamicists would design, nor would any reasonably attentive certification authority certify, a jet with marginal high-altitude performance or flying qualities. And with reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) on the horizon it will be mandatory that the autopilot be engaged at all times in cruise to maintain the required altitude keeping precision.

Keeping up with "jet speeds" always comes up when discussing pilots new to jets. That, too, is old news. Vref landing approach speeds on newly designed business jets are very low, often 110 knots or less, even on large jets such as the Gulfstream 550, so there is no extra speed to keep up with when compared to piston twins and turboprops. In fact, I have a hard time making myself slow down to the actual Vref in most business jets because they are so low I feel like I'm dawdling down the ILS. Approach speeds in the proposed mini jets will be even lower, maybe less than for some twin turboprops. And I don't see how the higher cruise speeds add anything to the challenge of flying a jet because the bad news is that the controllers usually tell you when to start down, and it's not often at the optimum point. In the terminal area, the mini jets will be happy flying at speeds typical of any propeller twin, so there just isn't an issue here.

The concern about the safety of micro jets-if they in fact become a reality-is totally misplaced. What the insurance companies and others worry about is that micro jets won't have the same safety record as business jets do now. I share that opinion. But that's the wrong thing to worry about. The valid safety comparison for the micro jets is with today's piston and turboprop airplanes because it is the mission, not so much the airplane and pilot, that determines safety.

The reason business jets have such a good record is that most are flown more like a major airline than like a personal general aviation airplane. With two pilots, mandatory initial and recurrent training, comprehensive standard operating procedures and inflexible minimum runway requirements, today's business jets fly with great safety. However, the micro jets can't be operated to the same standards because that would rob them of their usefulness.

For example, when you put two pilots in a five- or six-seat airplane you give up a lot of utility. And when the owner-pilot wants to fly his micro jet himself, being forced to drag along a copilot really adds to the hassle factor. To have a reason to exist, the micro jets must give up the obvious safety advantage of two pilots.

Standard operating procedures will need to be much more relaxed for the micro jet to live up to its expectations. If, for example, the owner-pilot wants to fly a night IFR trip to an airport with only a circling approach some safety will be compromised over limiting flights to airports with straight-in approaches, and better yet, with ILS approaches when the weather is low. But some safety has to be traded to get the micro jet owner to the airport he wants to be at.

And that's the key to all of general aviation safety, or lack thereof. If safety means flying with the lowest risk possible, then only transport category airplanes flown by crews of two to the highest standards of major airlines and large corporate flight departments qualify. If you compromise from that level of conservative operation, you are by definition unsafe.

But general aviation at all levels can only exist because participants trade away some amount of safety potential for the reward of convenience, affordability and even the challenge of taking on a unforgiving hobby. Making a general aviation airplane truly safe eliminates it in the same way that making a motorcycle as safe as we know how to make a vehicle turns it into a large car with airbags and rollover protection.

The people who are wringing their hands about the coming carnage of the new micro jets need to adjust their thinking. There will be wrecks, for sure, but there will be fewer of them in the jets than there were when the same people flew the same trips in propeller airplanes. The insurance companies have it right by charging a higher premium per insured value for piston airplanes than business jets as they do now, and the same will be true with the new little jets. As a group, jets will simply be safer than the propeller airplanes they replace.