In many countries accidents are considered to be criminal acts. Italy and Brazil come to mind as nations that have treated high profile aviation accidents as criminal acts by the pilots involved.
In Italy several years ago a U.S. military pilot flew into a ski lift cable system and a number of people on the lift were killed. The Italian government sought to prosecute the pilot. In Brazil an Embraer business jet on a delivery flight back to theU.S. collided with a Boeing 737 airliner causing the Boeing to crash killing all aboard while the Embraer crew was miraculously able to get the badly damaged business jet safely to a runway. The Brazilian courts prosecuted the Embraer pilots for a criminal act.
In theU.S. we have created a system that treats accidents as accidents, at least in the criminal sense. There is financial liability involved after most crashes, but the actions of those involved are treated by the government as mistakes, not willful actions that could be a crime.
This attitude toward accident investigation has helped make the U.S. aviation system the safest in the world. Everyone involved in the post-crash investigation knows that they can cooperate without fear of jeopardizing their freedom. It takes cooperation from all to uncover the chain of events that lead to crashes, and by knowing what caused an accident we can help prevent the same occurrence in the future. That’s one of the essential reasons that NTSB findings are not admissible in courts. The NTSB must remain independent so all involved in an accident are encouraged to cooperate fully in the investigation.
But now a prosecutor and grand jury in Massachusetts are charging the pilot of a Cessna 310 with involuntary manslaughter. The pilot crashed the piston twin short of the runway in darkness killing his daughter, the only passenger.
The NTSB has not completed its investigation and issued a probable cause of the accident that happened in January of 2011, but it is the facts in the case that have driven the prosecutors and grand jury to bring charges.
The pilot/owner of the Cessna 310 did not have a multiengine rating. The NTSB reports the pilot had about 500 hours of total experience, and he had gone through a period of six or seven years of no flying before he purchased the 310. The NTSB believes he received approximately 50 hours of multiengine instruction but never attempted the check ride necessary to earn the multiengine rating.
Commanding an airplane that you are not rated to fly violates the most fundamental FAR. It is not possible the 310 pilot could not have known that he was not FAA approved to command the piston twin flying solo, and certainly not with a passenger.
The other basic rule that was broken is lack of night currency. The pilot had not logged the required three takeoffs and landings at night within the previous 90 days that are necessary to legally carry a passenger when flying in darkness.
The reality is that almost every accident involves at least some violation of the rules. After all, it is essentially illegal to crash. But is this accident different? Are the rules violations involved so willful and premeditated as to rise to the level of a criminal act?
We all deplore the actions of the 310 pilot and nobody can condone flying—much less carrying passengers—without being approved to do so. But I hate to see any aviation accident enter the nether world of the criminal court system.
To my thinking criminal sanctions are intended to deter others from committing the same illegal act and to punish the criminal to help prevent the convicted from breaking the law again. The criminal just system is designed to protect the rest of society from harm. And I am sure that the grand jury and prosecutors in this case believe they are issuing both a deterrence message and punishing the pilot.
But I think this is a bad trade. It’s true the pilot’s willful disregard of the rules helped put his passenger’s safety at risk, and also increased the risk of people on the ground near the flight path. On the other hand, the cooperation of pilots and all others involved in accident investigations is so fundamental to improving safety that punishing one bad actor can have a chilling effect on all pilots and thus cause greater harm to overall flying safety.
This pilot killed his own daughter and I can’t imagine a punishment more severe. As for prosecution acting as a deterrence I think it will only deter all of us from working to promote safety by uncovering all of the details of the chain of events that lead to most accidents.
Bottom line this was a terrible piece of flying, and that’s true of many accidents. We must work to improve all of our flying abilities and procedures, not threaten to jail those who screw up. Safety will suffer.