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Opening Remarks at the NTSB Forum on Oversight of Public Aircraft Operations
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Forum on Oversight of Public Aircraft, Washington, DC

Good Morning. My name is Debbie Hersman and it is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Let me introduce my colleagues: Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Mark Rosekind, and Member Earl Weener.

Today, I would especially like to recognize my good friend from South Carolina, Member Robert L. Sumwalt III, for his recent appointment by the President and confirmation by the Senate to another 5-year term as a Board Member. It has been a privilege working with Captain Sumwalt since he came to the Board in 2006, and I know he will continue to serve the public with distinction.

Today, the Safety Board begins a two-day forum on public aircraft operations. We are convening this forum to assess how oversight of public aircraft operations is conducted and by whom, and to encourage operators and associations to embrace industry best practices to improve aviation safety.

Before we begin, I'd like to recognize the family members who have lost loved ones who are joining us in the Board room this morning, in particular the families of the Iron 44 firefighters. Others may also be watching via webcast. You know, tragically, the important and often high-risk role performed by public aircraft operations. Thank you for joining us.

Most people, when they think of aviation, think of our nation's scheduled airlines. The next thing that might come to mind is general aviation. However, what is less recognized is public aircraft operations.

So, what is a public aircraft operation? It is surprisingly difficult to answer that simple question, and herein lies part of the problem. Public aircraft operations are defined by their mission and not by the aircraft itself. These missions may be conducted by - or on behalf of - local, state, or federal government agencies. Any aircraft, from small helicopters to large cargo airplanes, can conduct public aircraft operations, and many are owned by private contractors.

This brief video provides a visual illustration of the wide-scope of public aircraft operations.


Hundreds of operations are performed each day... safely. Yet when something goes wrong, the results can be deadly.

From 2000 through the first eight months of this year, the NTSB has investigated about 350 public aircraft accidents resulting in 135 deaths, and we have issued more than 90 safety recommendations.

Let me highlight a few recent investigations:

  • In May of this year, a private company operating a modified Boeing 707 contracted with the U.S. Navy to perform air refueling, lost an engine and crashed on takeoff at Point Mugu, California. This accident is still being investigated, but the initial investigation revealed significant uncertainty regarding whether the operation was public or civil.
  • In 2009, an Agusta helicopter owned and operated by the New Mexico State Police crashed while performing a search-and-rescue mission. Contributing factors included an organizational culture that prioritized mission execution over aviation safety.
  • In 2008, a contracted helicopter transporting firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service crashed near Weaverville, California. The probable cause cited a contractor operating an aircraft beyond its performance capability and insufficient oversight by the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • The use of unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs, are increasing. In 2006, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft crashed in Nogales, Arizona. A contributing factor was inadequate surveillance of the UAS program by CBP.

Last year, non-military federal agencies used some thirteen hundred and fifty (1,350) aircraft that were flown more than half a million hours. Thirteen hundred and fifty aircraft represents the combined fleets of American and Delta, two of the world's largest airlines.

On the federal side, the General Services Administration (GSA) maintains a database of aircraft cost and usage, but on the state and local side, there's no one entity keeping track of the data. The absence of data leads to the first challenge in improving public aircraft operations safety: understanding the safety record. It is difficult to calculate accident rates when neither the scope, nor the flight hours, is known.

An equally troubling challenge is the persistent confusion concerning where responsibility lies for safety oversight. In the air carrier world and in general aviation, it is very clear that the FAA has regulatory authority over all aspects of aircraft operation and airworthiness, but those clear lines do not exist when it comes to public aircraft operations.

It has been said that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. This is never more true than after an accident, particularly with a contract operation, where no one wants to accept responsibility for oversight. Or with an organization that stands alone with no real oversight but their own - this lack of custody effectively makes public aircraft operations the orphans of aviation safety.

We have convened this forum with industry leaders to make progress towards safer operations in the future; to improve the transparency and accountability of oversight of public operations; to encourage improved data collection; and to share best practices and lessons learned.

Now, I'd like to turn to my colleague, Member Mark Rosekind, who has done a suberb job putting together this forum by consulting with our colleagues and working closely with our staff. Member Rosekind.