In many countries around the world aviation accidents are treated as criminal acts. Police and courts conduct investigations instead of a safety authority such as we have in the National Transportation Safety Board.
I’m sure most of you are aware of the criminal charges brought against the crew of an Embraer business jet that collided with an airline Boeing 737 over Brazil a few years ago. The cause of the collision was the typical chain of small errors by several people in the air and on the ground but the flight crew was convicted of a crime in Brazilian court.
Here in the U.S. aviation leaders and regulators are firmly convinced that open and candid investigations of aircraft accidents without fear of prosecution is the best way to establish the most accurate cause of the crash, and to learn how to prevent similar accidents in the future. That’s why the NTSB was created, why it is independent of the FAA and other government agencies, and why NTSB findings of cause cannot be used in court. Most of us in aviation believe the best way to learn from and prevent future accidents is to treat them as true accidents, not criminal acts where somebody must be blamed and punished.
But prosecutors in Massachusetts determined that the pilot of a Beech Baron 55 did commit a criminal act when he crashed into trees short of the runway after sunset. The only passenger onboard the piston twin, the pilot’s adult daughter, was killed.
FAA rules are broken in many, perhaps even most, accidents. The FARs are so broadly written and so expansive that the very act of crashing probably violates one rule or another. But what brought this Baron accident to the attention of prosecutors was the obvious willfulness of the rules violations.
The pilot of the Baron did not have a multi-engine rating, apparently did not have the required biennial flight review, and had not logged any night flying in more than 10 years before the accident.
Most of us probably unintentionally violate an FAR from time to time because, well, there are so many rules and interpretation of the rules has varied over the years. But it would be impossible for a pilot not to know that he didn’t have the category rating—multi-engine in this case—to legally fly solo or carry passengers. The NTSB determined that the pilot of the Baron had received about 50 hours of multi instruction but there was no instructor endorsement to solo a multi, much less to carry a passenger.
It’s not hard to lose track of night landing currency because most of us fly very little at night during the warm months of the year. Then when fall rolls around we need to look into the log and see if we have made the required three takeoffs and landings in the past 90 days in order to legally carry passengers. The takeoff is the easy part to miss because many of us often land in the dark during the winter, but depart after sunset less frequently.
Missing landing currency by 10 years as the accident pilot did is not the same as forgetting that you didn’t takeoff three times in the dark in the last 90 days. What made this crash manslaughter, instead of an accident, the prosecution determined, was the pilot’s willful, not unintentional, disregard of the regulations.
Under the U.S. legal system it is intent, or reckless disregard for the safety of others that makes an accident a crime. For example, when the little old lady mashes the gas pedal instead of the brake and runs over people and property it is an accident. There was no intent to do harm. But if a drunk driver does the same thing it is a crime under our system. The drunk should know that his actions will put others at risk and is thus responsible for the outcome. The result of each auto accident is the same with people being injured or killed and property damaged, but our legal system treats the two drivers very differently.
Several years ago an airline crew flew a perfectly routine trip with no altitude busts or other FAR violations. But they had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit when they took off. Nobody was hurt in the slightest but the pilots were criminally charged and jailed. It was their disregard of the rules that made their flight a crime, not how successfully they flew.
The Baron pilot ended up pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to just over a year of probation and will not be permitted to reapply for a pilot’s license which had been revoked by the FAA after the accident. Knowing that he caused the death of his daughter is a sentence so terrible it’s difficult to imagine that the courts could have added more pain.
Is aviation safety served by the prosecution of this pilot? I’m not sure. The actual NTSB probable cause of the accident is all too familiar. The pilot failed to recognize the visual approach slope guidance of the VASI and flew into the trees. The NTSB says contributing to the cause of the accident was his failure to make a preflight plan to know that it would be dark for his approach and his lack of recent night flying experience.
Perhaps the publicity of this pilot’s prosecution will prevent other pilots from willfully ignoring fundamental rules such as having the proper license to operate an airplane. Deterrence is a primary objective of any prosecution. But is that deterrence more effective than free and open accident investigation without fear of prosecution? I don’t think so. As soon as anyone involved in a crash fears criminal prosecution they will go into defense mode and withhold all information they can. We will not learn as much as possible about the accident.
We have all seen what the civil courts through product liability suits have done to general aviation. If the criminal court system gets involved too, where will it all end?