Says Harry Robertson, an aviation-safety pioneer: "Trying to improve crashworthiness is very hard if you don't know what broke." / Tom Tingl, The Arizona Republic, for USA TODAY
The Sikorsky helicopter that lifted off from the Louisiana coast on Jan. 4, 2009, should have been a model of safety for the two pilots and seven oil-rig workers on board. The $7 million aircraft was less than three years old and approved for flight by the world's premier aviation-safety agency, the Federal Aviation Administration.
But seven minutes after takeoff, the windshields shattered when the helicopter hit a red-tailed hawk. Equipment shifted in the cockpit, cutting engine power and plunging the 6-ton aircraft 850 feet into a marsh. Eight people were killed.
The helicopter seemed modern, but its windshields were made of acrylic and didn't meet strength standards the FAA established in 1996 to prevent catastrophe in a bird strike. The FAA allowed the lighter acrylic windshields because the helicopter had only to meet federal safety standards from when it was designed - in 1978.
"It's absolutely crazy," said retired colonel Dennis Shanahan, an air-safety expert and former commander of the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. "This is essentially an abrogation of (the FAA's) responsibilities as a safety agency."
The FAA exempts tens of thousands of private airplanes and helicopters from its current safety standards, letting them operate without lifesaving protections such as passenger shoulder belts, anti-collision lights, crash-resistant fuel tanks, fire-resistant cargo compartments and bird-resistant windshields, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
The exemptions occur under a policy known as "grandfathering," which allows manufacturers to build brand-new aircraft under the safety standards that were in place when the aircraft was designed - often decades earlier. The most widely owned airplanes today - the Piper Cherokee and Cessna Skyhawk - need only meet federal safety standards from the 1960s and 1970s.
The FAA policy saves manufacturers money but also creates dangers, some safety experts say.
"Grandfathering means that you can keep making the same mistake over and over again and killing people the same way, even though you know better," said Sue Baker, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in transportation injuries. "If it were applied to cars, it would mean you could buy a Volkswagen Beetle made today without seat belts, and that's nonsense."
The FAA said in a statement that it has "not seen a negative safety effect" from grandfathering and that many aircraft have been upgraded with safety features that didn't exist when the aircraft was made. Agency officials declined repeated requests for an interview.
Safety deficiencies in private aircraft have contributed to thousands of deaths and injuries over the past five decades, according to a USA TODAY analysis and reports by the FAA itself. Crashes of private flights - a sector known as "general aviation" - have killed nearly 45,000 people since 1964, almost nine times the number killed in airliners.
USA TODAY's analysis shows:
The FAA vowed to substantially reduce the number of helicopter deaths through a 1994 standard requiring sturdy fuel tanks that would not rupture in low-impact crashes and rollovers. Ruptured tanks leak fuel, igniting infernos that kill people who survived a crash itself. The FAA in 1990 said the fires kill or injure roughly 27 people a year and called them "the number one rotorcraft crash hazard."
But the FAA required sturdy tanks only in helicopters designed after Nov. 2, 1994, letting manufacturers continue making thousands of new helicopters with rupture-prone tanks.
The FAA said in a statement that "the amended standards were appropriate only for new (helicopter) designs" and declined to elaborate.
Post-crash helicopter fires have killed at least 73 people and injured at least 25 since Nov. 2, 1994, according to a USA TODAY review of autopsy reports and crash records. Although crash reports do not describe helicopter fuel components, none of the 46 helicopters in the crashes was required to have the sturdier tanks, USA TODAY found. USA TODAY also found that fewer than a quarter of the roughly 4,850 active helicopters manufactured after 1994 are required to have sturdy tanks.
As a 2002 FAA report concluded, "The post-crash fire problem still exists."
The FAA sought to reduce the number of midair collisions by requiring anti-collision lights on all general-aviation airplanes instead of just on those approved for night flying. The lights make airplanes more visible in daylight.
But the regulation applied only to airplanes designed after the March 11, 1996, effective date. Manufacturers could continue to produce previously designed airplanes without those lights.
Since March 1996, 184 daytime midair collisions have killed 241 people, according to a USA TODAY review of federal records. In 130 of the crashes, investigators found the pilots didn't see each other.
The FAA rejected a 1992 suggestion by the National Transportation Safety Board to require crash-warning systems on all small general-aviation jets, saying the airplanes were safe without them. The systems help prevent a leading cause of general-aviation deaths - crashes by disoriented pilots - with alerts that sound if an airplane gets dangerously close to a mountain or other terrain.
When a 1994 Learjet crash killed 12, the FAA decided to study the suggestion it had spurned. The study of 44 crashes found warning systems could have prevented between 33 and 42 of them and saved 70 to 127 lives.
Swayed by the study and by improvements in the warning systems, the FAA ordered them installed in the 2000s on jets with six or more passenger seats. But it also created a loophole sought by manufacturers and small-plane operators: Airplane owners could ignore the requirement if they reduced passenger seating to fewer than six, which can be done by removing a single seat belt.
On Thanksgiving eve in 2011, Russel Hardy had no warning of the sheer cliff ahead of him as he flew a Rockwell Aero Commander in the darkness toward Arizona's Superstition Mountains. The airplane owner had removed one seat belt to avoid installing a warning system, investigators found, although the NTSB said the change had not been properly approved.
Six people were killed when the Aero Commander slammed into the mountain at 200 mph. The dead included Shawn Perry and his three children: Morgan, Logan and Luke, ages 9, 8 and 6.
A warning system "would have completely avoided the accident," said Karen Perry, the children's mother. "It's a requirement for a reason. But I can see why they might want to skirt around that regulation in an effort to not spend the money."
The FAA's resistance to some safety features has compounded a major problem with the nation's roughly 220,000 general-aviation aircraft: Many are decades old.
The average single-engine airplane registered with the FAA was built 41 years ago, long before many safety features were invented. Roughly 50,000 of the aircraft were built more than a half-century ago, federal records show.
The average automobile in the U.S. is 11.4 years old, according to automotive research firm R.L. Polk.
"If you were to own a car built 40 years ago, you wouldn't want to drive it every day. It wouldn't have anti-lock brakes, air bags or energy-absorbing crumple zones," said Greg Bowles of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. "That's the world of (general-aviation) airplanes as well."
Amateur pilots keep propeller-driven airplanes for decades because buying a new one is costly, and manufacturers have scaled back production of propeller airplanes, shifting to jets and turboprops.
An FAA advisory committee said last year that a majority of today's propeller airplanes were approved under safety standards from the 1960s and could not meet current standards "without significant additional costs."
With pilots flying old aircraft and not adding new protective features, "the safety level of general aviation does not improve," the 346-page report concluded.
Many amateur-flown aircraft lack rudimentary safety features such as shoulder belts, which the FAA and its predecessor delayed requiring in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, despite repeated studies showing they would prevent hundreds of deaths a year by keeping people from slamming into hard interior surfaces in a crash.
The NTSB found in 2008 that at least 13% of single-engine airplanes that crashed that year did not have shoulder belts. The finding suggests there were nearly 20,000 single-engine airplanes in the U.S. without the restraints.
The NTSB also found after studying 37,000 single-engine airplane crashes over the previous 25 years that people wearing shoulder belts and lap belts were nearly 50% less likely to be killed or seriously injured than people wearing only lap belts.
But when the NTSB urged the FAA to require airplane owners to install shoulder belts, the FAA said no. The "economic burden" would "outweigh any potential benefit," the FAA concluded.
The FAA often cites cost-benefit reasons for rejecting safety proposals - with the "cost" measured in dollars and the "benefit" measured in lives saved and property damage avoided. The Department of Transportation sets a $9.2 million value on each human life.
The FAA, like other federal agencies, must show that the likely benefit of a new safety feature would outweigh its cost. The FAA projects lives that will be saved based on deaths in the past - a position that safety advocates say begs for a major tragedy before aviation can be made safer.
"We actually are waiting for more people to be killed before we can do something that makes sense," said former NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who became president of the National Safety Council in May. "We don't kill enough people in aviation to merit regulatory changes." Hersman called this "the tyranny of small numbers."
One of the worst general-aviation crashes occurred on Aug. 5, 2008, in a Northern California forest when a firefighting helicopter crashed 18 minutes after takeoff. Seven firefighters and two crewmembers were killed by the impact and by a fire that ignited when the fuel tanks ruptured after the crash. The Sikorsky S-61, designed in 1959, was exempt from the 1994 fuel-tank standard.
When the NTSB urged the FAA to require the installation of sturdy fuel tanks on all S-61s, FAA's then-administrator Randolph Babbitt declined. "We lack adequate safety data to conclude there is an unsafe condition," Babbitt said.
In several instances, the FAA has put off safety proposals only to reverse itself years later.
â?¢ The FAA rejected requests starting in 1991 from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America to require special licensing for people flying the company's MU-2 airplane. The MU-2 had crashed 136 times by 1991, killing 163. Australia, Canada and Germany all required special licensing for MU-2 pilots.
As the MU-2 death toll in the U.S. rose to 241 by 2005 and congressional pressure built, the FAA conducted a study that found pilots should get annual training for the MU-2. The training, which became mandatory in 2009, could have prevented 15 crashes between 1996 and 2005 that killed 21 people, the FAA said.
â?¢ The FAA hesitated when the NTSB in 2002 recommended more pilot training and safety equipment for helicopters flying over snow-covered terrain that makes distances and altitude difficult to discern.
A recent FAA study found that the training and equipment might have prevented 49 crashes between 1991 and 2010 that killed 63 people. The FAA mandated both items this year - 12 years after the NTSB proposal.
â?¢ After the 2009 helicopter crash near Louisiana that killed eight, the FAA rejected an NTSB proposal aimed at preventing similar crashes. The NTSB wanted the FAA to bar helicopter owners from replacing bird-resistant windshields with windshields that did not meet its bird standard.
The FAA said adopting such a policy would require revising a regulation, "which is not practical."
Court records show that helicopter operator PHI saved $15,750 on the $7 million Sikorsky because it had acrylic windshields instead of standard bird-resistant glass windshields. PHI had been using the weaker windshields on its Sikorskys since the 1980s, when the helicopter's glass windshields began causing problems, according to the NTSB.
The FAA still lets Sikorsky and others make new helicopters without bird-resistant windshields - provided the helicopters were designed before the bird standard took effect in 1996.
With grandfathering, the FAA differs sharply from its motor-vehicle counterpart, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which requires new vehicles to meet the safety standards in place when cars and trucks roll off the assembly line.
Federally mandated protections such as air bags and anti-lock brakes are now widely used and have dramatically improved survival rates in automobile crashes. Occupants are 25% more likely to survive a crash now than in 1988, federal figures show. "Vehicles are much better at protecting people when crashes happen than they were 25 years ago," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The survival rate in general-aviation crashes has barely changed in that time, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal records.
"We've stagnated," said Shanahan, the former Army research commander. General-aviation aircraft were safer than automobiles in the 1950s, Shanahan said, but "there's been a total reversal because so many aircraft are operating off of certificates that predate a lot of the safety regulations."
The FAA has acknowledged problems with grandfathering and with general-aviation safety.
The agency in 2011 called general aviation "one of the FAA's last unresolved safety challenges." It's looking at making it easier for manufacturers to develop new piston-engine airplanes and safety equipment.
An FAA goal to reduce the general-aviation fatal accident rate by 10% between 2009 and 2018 is failing thus far. The rate in 2012 - the most recent year for which figures are available - was higher than it was in 2009.
Some safety problems result from the FAA's system for regulating aircraft manufacturing. The FAA gets involved with manufacturers when they are designing a new aircraft and works with them for three to six years to ensure a design meets safety standards in place at the time.
FAA design approval lets manufacturers produce that aircraft for as long as they want - even for decades - under the safety standards in effect during the design review. Manufacturers can change an aircraft model - producing it with different engines, propellers or fuel tanks to increase speed, safety and range - without the FAA declaring the revised aircraft a "new" design.
Some aircraft have been revised a dozen times over a half-century without being considered a new design requiring FAA approval - or new safety features.
"Manufacturers get around the requirement by saying, 'This is not really a new helicopter, it's the same as it was in 1956,' and they end up with a B or C or D model," said Harry Robertson, an aviation-safety expert who has consulted for the FAA. "The FAA has been, in my judgment, very weak in resisting that claim."
The Sikorsky helicopter that crashed in Louisiana was a model that the FAA approved in 2005. But by presenting it to the FAA as an update to a helicopter designed in the late 1970s - not a new helicopter - Sikorsky avoided having to meet safety standards adopted since then, such as the windshield-strength regulation.
Sikorsky considered building the new-model helicopters to the latest safety standards, Sikorsky manager Eric Hansen said in a 2011 deposition. But, he said, "we determined that it would be cost-prohibitive to certify the aircraft to the latest amendment."
This grandfathering policy spares manufacturers from having to redesign their aircraft to meet every new FAA safety standard. For general-aviation manufacturers, which produce at most several hundred aircraft a year, redesign represents a much more substantial cost than for auto companies making millions of cars a year, said Rob Hackman, head of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The FAA in 2000 acknowledged a problem, noting that while a single revision may be minor, a series of revisions could create an aircraft "with considerable differences from the original product." Many substantially revised aircraft "have not been required to demonstrate compliance with all the recent airworthiness standards," the FAA said. Since 2000, the FAA has been requiring components that manufacturers add to an aircraft model, such as modern navigation or communications systems, to meet current safety standards, but the requirement applies only to an individual part.
The FAA monitors aircraft for problems through the NTSB, its own investigations and safety reports from owners. The FAA can force aircraft improvements by ordering repairs or upgrades on specific models or by requiring active aircraft to meet a safety condition to be able to continue flying. But its monitoring system has limits.
Unlike commercial air carriers, which must report in-flight malfunctions and defects of major components, general-aviation operators have no reporting requirement.
And unlike automobile makers, which must tell the Department of Transportation about lawsuits and other defect allegations, aircraft manufacturers have no such reporting requirement.
The FAA took years to resolve problems with the Cessna Caravan, a rugged airplane designed in 1984 and used by many cargo haulers but which the agency found was crashing in icing conditions. In 1991, Caravan operators were reporting that the systems to remove ice from the wings were losing effectiveness during flight, according to an FAA bulletin.
Over the next decade, as ice-related crashes continued, the FAA issued directives to help Caravan pilots fly in icing conditions. It wasn't until years later that agency officials expressed concern about the FAA approval for the airplane to fly in icing conditions. A January 2004 agency memo noted that although approval was done properly, it was based on standards the FAA set in 1973 - not on a 1993 revision that required more flight testing. "Standards have changed dramatically since the (Caravan) was certificated," an FAA official wrote in the memo.
A series of warnings followed, telling pilots that the Caravan's stall-warning system "should not be relied upon in icing conditions" and that the pilots should not fly in the "moderate" icing conditions for which the Caravan was approved. By then, 57 people had died in 25 ice-related Caravan crashes, the FAA wrote in a memo.
Cessna said in a statement to USA TODAY that it provides "new information and improvements" to airplane owners to assure safe operation and disputes claims that its airplanes are unsafe "when they are used and maintained as required by published guidance."
In 2007, the FAA ordered the installation of a warning system that notifies Caravan pilots if they are flying at low speed in icing conditions.
Although the FAA had certified decades earlier that the airplane was safe, the agency said in 2007 that the new warning system "is necessary for the (Caravan) to operate safely."
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