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In the wake of Friday’s deadly skydiving crash in Mokuleia — the worst U.S. civil aviation accident since 2011 — transportation safety leaders are renewing their call from over a decade ago to impose stricter rules on such flights.
The National Transportation Safety Board first raised concerns about inadequate maintenance, pilot training and federal inspections for skydiving flights in 2008 when they issued a series of safety recommendations in a special investigative report.
Despite those efforts, the Federal Aviation Administration has kept skydiving flights under its weakest-possible set of regulations, NTSB officials said during a press conference Monday. They sought to put pressure on the FAA while also giving an update on the early steps of the crash investigation.
“Are we trying to put the FAA on notice on this? Yes,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told the media gathered in a conference room at the Ala Moana Hotel.
“There is an inherent risk to parachuting…But paying passengers should be able to count on an airworthy plan, an adequately trained pilot, a safe operator and adequate federal oversight of those operations,” Homendy said.
Since making its recommendations in 2008, the NTSB has recorded an additional 81 skydiving flight accidents and 30 deaths across the U.S. — including the 11 people who perished when a twin engine Beechcraft King Air plane operated by Oahu Parachute Company crashed moments after takeoff Friday at Dillingham Airfield on Oahu’s North Shore.
“Are we trying to put the FAA on notice on this? Yes.” — NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy
To be sure, it’s not clear if maintenance, pilot error or oversight issues previously flagged by NTSB were at all factors in this latest skydiving crash.
NTSB investigators have just started to examine the wreckage and records at hand. Their final conclusions likely won’t be released for another 18 to 24 months.
Nonetheless, Homendy said that NTSB officials would keep in mind the “differences” between how skydiving flights are regulated versus other air tour operations as the investigation moves forward.
“The NTSB has called on the FAA to improve the safety of parachute jump operations,” she said. “Some of those recommendations, specifically with respect to training, maintenance of aircraft and FAA oversight have not been acted on by the FAA.”
Specifically, Homendy and other NTSB officials on hand Monday said that skydiving flights should be covered under the more stringent Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 along with most other air tour operations with paying passengers.
But skydiving flights are exempted from those rules, they said. Instead, they’re covered under the more lax Part 91. As such, they’re not held to the same stringent maintenance or pilot-training requirements.
“Because they operate under Part 91, parachute jump operators are also not subject to the federal regulations that require compliance with manufacturers’ recommended maintenance instructions,” such as service bulletins and time between engine overhauls, the NTSB stated in its 2008 report.
Aircraft covered under Part 91 must only comply with general airworthiness directives, Homendy said Monday.
In a statement Monday, FAA officials said they take the NTSB skydiving flight recommendations “very seriously.”
“The FAA required its safety inspectors to conduct increased surveillance of parachute operations, revised the safety guidance we issued to parachute operators, and increased our safety outreach to the parachuting community,” the statement read.
Still, those limited surveillance requirements, along with more guidance and outreach instead of more stringent requirements on maintenance and pilot-training specifically tailored to the unique rigors of skydiving flights, irked the NTSB, which classified many of the FAA’s responses to its recommendations as “unacceptable.”
In its 2008 report, the NTSB found that “maintenance is especially critical for parachute operations aircraft” because of their heavy use and “periods of climb power followed by sudden reductions in power to descend, which can be particularly conducive to engine wear.” Skydiving pilots similarly have to deal with a variety of mid-flight conditions but don’t have to take any special training, it added.
In the years that followed that report, the FAA pushed back against making most of the NTSB recommendations outright requirements. Instead, it largely responded by teaming with the nation’s main skydiving association on more safety outreach to its members, a record of correspondence shows.
The FAA and United States Parachuting Association “believe that the current regulatory requirements for maintenance are adequate but must be better communicated and disseminated,” an FAA official wrote to the NTSB in June 2010.
“USPA took an active role in educating owners of jump plane aircraft, pilots, parachutists, and skydiving drop zone operators (DZO) using the association’s monthly magazine,” it added.
Finally, the FAA official’s memo to NTSB concluded:
“Although not mandatory, the FAA and USPA recommend that owners/operators review the manufacturer’s maintenance manual or any other manufacturer’s recommended information and incorporate appropriate actions. I believe that the FAA has effectively addressed this safety recommendation, and I consider our actions complete.”
“We remain concerned that operators of aircraft used in parachute jump operations are not required to develop and implement FAA-approved aircraft maintenance and inspection programs,” the safety board told the FAA in June 2012.
The two agencies had similar conflicts over pilot training regulations.
Meanwhile, NTSB investigators plan to be at the crash site for the next few days collecting evidence before moving the wreckage to a secure location.
They’ll interview crash witnesses, employees and independent contractors, as well as investigate the plane’s airworthiness, engine and operations, Homendy said Monday.
Homendy asked the public to send any photos or videos from the past two years of the Beechcraft plane, specifically front and rear views of the craft to the email address email@example.com. The plane’s tail number is N256TA.
The 2008 NTSA special investigation into skydiving was spurred by 32 skydiving aircraft accidents having killed 172 people between 1980 and the time of publication.
Among them was a December 1981 crash of a plane into Pearl Harbor that, as Hawaii News Now reports, carried skydivers planning to jump into Aloha Stadium. Eleven people were killed and a twelfth passenger survived.
Additionally, NTSB’s online database lists two other fatal accidents out of Dillingham Airfield in the past three decades:
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