Single-Pilot Jet Safety

The record is really pretty good.

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December

From a New York Daily News story: "It was too powerful, too sophisticated, too much plane for him." Diana Munson, Thurman Munson's wife was quoted as saying: "People who knew anything about flying and aviation knew this was nuts." And it was said that the New York Yankees catcher and team captain didn't plan on keeping his Citation.

As a pilot, Munson had 516 total hours, 33 in the Citation, and had had a type rating for 16 days when, on August 2, 1979, at about 4 o'clock on a nice afternoon, he was on approach, too low, too slow and not quick enough on the power. The two passengers he was taking for a ride in his new jet survived. Thurman Munson did not and his demise set the stage for endless discussions on the subject of rich guys who can afford jets flying those jets without a copilot.

Flying a jet single pilot can save a little money and can be a lot more convenient than having to find a pilot to warm the right seat. It is also more ego-satisfying for the captain of sport or industry or whatever. Most just don't want a babysitter. And how good does that second pilot have to be? The way the rules are written, even for an airplane that requires two pilots, the person in the right seat doesn't have to be an ace of the base. The letter of the law on second-in-command qualifications can be met with a couple of hours of discussion about the airplane and maybe a 30-minute flight, to include three takeoffs and landings to a full stop and a whack at engine out procedures. Simply put, there are copilots and there are copilots.

Even though many are making somewhat of a mystery out of the potential for disaster in the new very light jets flown without a copilot, there is history here, though there's no way it can be definitive. If anyone tells you that the rate in single-pilot jet flying and crewed jet flying is this or that, don't believe them. There is absolutely no way in the world to tell how many jet hours are flown single pilot and with crews.

What we are trying to do here is compare the risk level where you have, on one hand, two professional pilots and, on the other hand, a person to whom flying is an activity that is, and had better be if the bills are to be paid, secondary to what the pilot does with most of his time.

Hopefully we have learned something since Thurman Munson did the deed in 1979. For the purpose of this safety discussion I'm going to make the basic airplane of consideration the CitationJet and look in both directions.

The CJ came in 1993 and is often operated single pilot. It has a tried and true training program and even though it came along only 16 years ago, it flies with the maturity of the entire Citation program that started flying 35 years ago. So the CJ is where we start looking at single pilots and safety. Modern pilots and a modern airplane.

To make sure everyone is flying by the same rules and with the same constraints, only events that occurred in the 48 contiguous states are considered. I found in the NTSB files 14 total CJ wrecks in 13 years, a remarkably small number when you consider that the domestic fleet likely averaged 400 to 500 airplanes flying during this time. As best I could tell, all but one accident involved a pilot who did not have a qualified second-in-command in the right seat. Three of the accidents were fatal, none with a qualified copilot. We simply don't know what percentage of the CJ flying is done single pilot, but I'd guess it is pretty high. It also has to be noted that there are many cases of aircraft damage that do not warrant an NTSB report of an accident.

Some express concern about relatively inexperienced pilots flying at high altitude. There has not been a single CJ wreck related to flying high, which is a tribute to the training effort in this area and the fundamentally sound design of the airplane. In fact, you can delete most of the less serious CJ accidents if pilots would fly proper approaches, not make horrendous landings and confine the landing roll to the runway.

In the three fatal accidents, all without a qualified copilot, would another pilot have helped? One was a VFR scud run, which isn't a good idea in a Skyhawk, much less a CJ. A second pilot might have dissuaded the pilot from such a risky undertaking. One was a midair collision in Class B airspace where the other airplane didn't have an operating transponder. TCAS thus couldn't help but another pair of eyes might have. The third was a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accident on a non-precision approach in bad weather with a pilot-rated passenger in the right seat.

In all three of those it might be argued that avionics could have done a better job of saving the day: TCAS and a transponder in the other airplane in one case and ground prox in the other two might have had the same benefit as another pilot. New jets will all fly with this equipment, so those items are being addressed.

When we consider the potential safety record of single-pilot jets we have to go back to where the pilots came from to see if the training and performance and better systems of the jets helps pilots to fly more safely.

The twin-engine and pressurized Cessna 340 is a good example of a piston airplane that is usually flown by one nonprofessional pilot. A 340 owner is but a good lottery ticket away from a CJ or a VLJ. Will the ex-340 pilot be riskier in a speeding jet?

Hardly. Using available numbers, in the period from 1993 to the present, it is likely that the 340 fleet flew a few more hours than the CJ fleet, maybe even as much as a third more. That is purely an educated guess. In this period the 340 had 51 total accidents compared with 14 for the CJ and 20 fatal accidents compared with three for the CJ. That is a remarkable difference and a clear indication that risk can be better managed in a jet. Six of the 340 fatal wrecks related to a problem with the engines or the systems; only one of the CJ nonfatal wrecks involved a mechanical problem, a runaway trim and a pilot's failure to stop the trim.

Okay, it is clear that going from piston to jet is good for pilot health. The safety record improves dramatically. How about the other envelope? How does the CJ compare with the bigger Citations that are more likely flown by crews?

The Citations 550, 551 and 560 outnumber the CJ, probably on the order of somewhere within shouting distance of twice as big a domestic fleet size in the 1993 to present time range. Maybe more, maybe less. Some of these airplanes are wrecked when flown by a single pilot, but only a few. Most have a full crew on board when they get bent up.

In this period, the 550/551/560 had 31 total (compared to 14 for the CJ) and five fatal (compared with three for the CJ) accidents in the NTSB records. One of the fatal accidents in the larger Citations involved a single pilot.

Can this be construed to mean that crews are close to being as risky as single pilots on nonfatal accidents and more than twice as good when it comes to fatal accidents? Not really on the nonfatals, because crews likely had proportionately a lot less accidents in CJs than did single pilots. On fatal accidents, the crews appeared to have done substantially better.

Crews have the same problems as single pilots with landings and specifically with approaches that are too high and too fast. I would add that Citations have an affinity for animals, tangling with geese and deer with enough damage to rate an NTSB report in this period.

Again, in the crewed airplanes there was no connection between flying high and risk.

The fatal crewed accidents were all things that work in any airplane: Failure to maintain airspeed, CFIT and a late go-around pretty well sum up the risk factors.

I didn't delve deeply into the Cessna 500/501, the original Citation and also often flown single pilot, because most of those airplanes are older and would be less likely to have the latest safety equipment. These airplanes did have 14 total and four fatal accidents in the period with three of the fatal and eight of the total accidents apparently involving a single pilot. That would have to be out of proportion to the hours flown single pilot in these older airplanes. The other current airplane that might be considered is the Beech Model 390 Premier I. It is in the fleet in much smaller numbers than the CJs and the NTSB shows three accident records, none fatal, with all three related to landing. Two of the three were operated by a single pilot. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the performance or complexity of an airplane like the CJ leads to increased risk when that airplane is flown by a single pilot, especially if the airplane has all the latest electronic safety devices.

I think it is safe to say that, if you could get accurate hour numbers, single-pilot jets would come out a whole lot better than piston airplanes and not as good as jets flown by a professional crew. The logic behind that is pretty overwhelming. Also, when considering the new crop of VLJs, pilots have always been innovative when it comes to wrecking new types. All but the Cessna Mustang will start at a beginning and nobody can know how the airplanes will fare until there is experience with the fleet.

Having said that, I think that properly screened and then properly trained pilots should be able to tool along solo in their very light jets while enjoying a low level of risk, especially when compared with piston airplanes. That is the first time I mentioned screening but that is an important factor. There are simply a lot of affluent pilots who might not be adaptable to flying high-performance airplanes, and if we don't weed them out, and if we wind up with a large number of very light jets flying, the safety record might not be pretty. A person might be able to think clearly enough to make millions of dollars but he might not be able to think fast enough to make a 350-knot airplane behave. That was not a problem for the Citation in the beginning and is still not a big problem, but with new types and bigger numbers, who knows?