Remarks of Chairman Jim Hall
before the Parachute Industry Association
September 20, 1997, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Thank you very much for inviting me here today and allowing me to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board’s activities in relation to your industry.
First, let me express my concern about the skydiving accidents that have occurred in the past few months. I know that many of you have lost friends and even family in these unfortunate and tragic accidents. I can assure you that the NTSB is diligently searching for causes of these crashes and exploring the best ways to prevent future sport parachuting-related accidents. I am pleased that the Parachute Industry Association has expressed interest in participating as parties to our investigations. We can therefore work toward our common goal of reducing these kinds of accidents in the future.
And we must continue to work together to reduce these accidents, because sport parachuting has been growing by leaps and bounds during the past decade. In fact, the USPA reports that parachuting activity has grown 10 percent per year for each of the last 6 years. That association now has 33,000 members and estimates that millions of jumps are conducted each year in the United States.
Many of you run complex manufacturing operations combining aviation, technology, personnel, and facilities. Safety should be the top priority of all phases of your operations. But when that safety net is breached, the chances of having an accident increase. And when there’s a accident, you find out firsthand exactly what the NTSB does and how it operates. Let’s hope that our paths continue to cross at meetings like this and not at accident sites.
Although the Safety Board is one of the federal government’s smallest agencies, it has a big job. While we are sometimes confused with the FAA, we are not part of the FAA or any other Department of Transportation agency. Congress established us as an independent federal agency, and we are often required to investigate DOT’s role in an accident scenario. We investigate about 2,500 accidents and incidents involving aviation, highway, marine, rail and pipeline annually; more than half of our resources are expended on aviation.
To do this job, the taxpayers have funded us to the tune of more than $40 million this year – I know that all of you here are taxpayers, so we really work for you. Although we monitor the effectiveness of the safety programs of the Department of Transportation’s modal agencies and of billion dollar transportation corporations, to give you an idea of our relative sizes, our annual budget would fund the DOT for just nine hours of a single day!
And I consider our 370-person agency one of the best bargains in government -- it costs each of you more to mail a single post card than it does to fund the NTSB for a year.
As many of you know, the Safety Board’s aircraft accident investigations lead to recommendations to the FAA; to aircraft, engine, and component manufacturers; to foreign airworthiness authorities; and to organizations that can make a safety difference, like the Parachute Industry Association and the U.S. Parachute Association.
Instead of placing blame for an accident, the Safety Board determines the probable cause with the goal of promoting positive change in the industry and, in the case of parachuting, making the sport safer. The process is designed for the free flow of information between those individuals who have been involved in the mishap and the investigation team members. We ask for complete access to records and information to better formulate an accurate picture of accident circumstances. We designate certain individuals and groups as parties to the investigation who have expertise or knowledge to help record the facts and find out what happened; that could very well be any of you.
We don’t allow lawyers, insurers or public relations people to participate in investigations. We do this to separate our investigations from the processes of litigation.
Many casual observers might wonder what the Safety Board’s interest is in sport parachuting aircraft. How much can you worry about the safety of people who routinely throw themselves out of airplanes thousands of feet off the ground? Our response is an easy one – skydiving might have its inherent dangers, but flying to the drop zone shouldn’t be one of them.
There is a tendency to write off many of the accidents we’ve investigated as aviation crashes that just happened to have parachutists aboard. This is a trap we should avoid. There are elements in many of the accidents that are specific to the sport, most prominently the use of passenger restraints.
I would like to recount a few accidents that illustrate the NTSB’s work with your industry and some of the safety lessons learned.
On October 17, 1982, a military version of a Beech D-18 crashed during takeoff near Taft, California. The aircraft had 12 sport parachutists on board; none survived. The Safety Board determined that the airplane had been overloaded with a center of gravity that was well in excess of the aft limit. The Board was concerned that the FAA was not sufficiently attentive to sport parachuting operations and that the safety of parachutists was jeopardized by companies that didn't operate their airplanes safely. The Safety Board urged the FAA to do a better job of defining its oversight responsibilities for sport parachute aircraft.
In response, in early 1983 the FAA issued an operations bulletin to help its field inspectors understand and properly inspect sport parachuting aircraft.
On August 21, 1983, a Lockheed L-18 Learstar crashed after an uncontrolled descent from 12,500 feet. Of the 24 jumpers on board, 15 were able to exit and parachute safely to a landing. The Safety Board determined that, as the pilot slowed for jump operations, the jumpers congregated near the tail of the airplane to jump together and the airplane went out of control. Had the pilot known the consequences of the shift in center of gravity when all the jumpers moved to the rear, NTSB investigators believe he would have maneuvered the airplane differently. As a result of the Safety Board's findings, we issued three recommendations urging the FAA to:
1. Inspect jump aircraft with jump operations in mind;
2. Periodically inspect the jump airplanes for airworthiness;
3. Maintain a close liaison with the U.S. Parachute Association and local "drop zones" to foster good safety practices.
The FAA responded to the Board’s recommendations with a general notice to FAA air safety inspectors and a change in an advisory circular.
On April 22, 1992, a de Havilland Twin Otter crashed during takeoff at Perris Valley, California after an engine lost power. The Safety Board determined that the accident was caused by contaminated fuel obtained from the improper handling of the air field’s fuel tanks and the pilot's improper actions after the power loss, as well as other factors. Although the aircraft never rose above 50 feet, 14 jumpers and the two pilots were killed.
The Safety Board conducted an in-depth study of "drop zone" operations following that accident. We found that sport parachute operations are complex and have unique procedures that are not found in any other aviation operation. Sport parachute flight operations do not have a pyramid of quality control personnel. They must control their fuel handling, maintenance, and other procedures much more individually than large aviation operations.
On September 7, 1992, a military variation of a Beech D-18 crashed near Hinckley, Illinois, after one of the engines malfunctioned. The pilot was maneuvering to land when the aircraft went out of control close to the ground. All 12 aboard died.
In both of these accidents, the Safety Board found that the parachutists on the flight were not properly secured by seat belts or restraints. This was extremely important because impact forces were survivable, particularly at Perris Valley. Had the jumpers been wearing seat belts, lives may have been saved. The Safety Board made recommendations both to the FAA and to the U.S. Parachute Association following the Perris Valley and Hinckley accidents. The recommendations urged the FAA to require mandatory use of seat belts by parachutists, and develop better safety restraint systems and seating with parachutist industry.
And we’ve seen tangible benefits. In the past 12 months, our investigators estimate that more than 20 lives have been saved by the proper use of seat belts in survivable aircraft accidents.
I am pleased that the Parachute Industry Association, the USPA and local "drop zones" are aggressively pursuing these issues, particularly by changing the behavior of jumpers to insist that seat belt usage be mandatory. Now, parachutists and "drop zones" are paying more attention to aircraft safety issues.
Even though parachutists tend to be preoccupied with the upcoming jump, they can do more to ensure their own safety. For instance, the fuel for an aircraft should be tested before pumping, filtered at the pumps or the truck, then tested by the pilot before flight. You would be surprised at the number of accidents the Safety Board investigates each year that could have been prevented by good judgment and sound practices.
I also know that there have been several meetings between the FAA and your organization to develop good, safe use of equipment manufactured in other countries. The FAA has made tremendous advances through committees harmonizing federal regulations that can be used by all countries. My hope is that the FAA can continue those meetings to resolve foreign parachute gear use in the United States.
In acknowledging your role in pursuing universal rules for parachute equipment that all countries will follow, I commend your organization for assuming the responsibility for military specification standards for parachutes and associated hardware. You are providing a very needed and important service to this nation.
I would also like to acknowledge the FAA’s role in taking more positive steps to give sport parachute operations a higher priority in their national inspection program. We hope that future FAA budgets will continue to allow proper funding for this important activity.
At the Safety Board, we have discussed the need for increased involvement of the FAA in sport parachuting activities for the past few years. Although some of you might question the need for government involvement, with due consideration of your needs, the FAA can help promote sport parachuting without unnecessary hardships or hard feelings, or unjustly raising the cost of your sport.
The Safety Board and the Parachute Industry Association are partners in searching for safer sport parachuting. I thank you for your efforts recently to change the labels on parachutes to more accurately reflect the opening limitations. Our investigators reviewing the failure of a parachute used by a acrobatic pilot after his Russian SU-29 airplane departed controlled flight appreciate the quick response and concerns the Parachute Industry Association demonstrated in the aftermath of this accident.
I commend the work of the association in promoting standards that raise the margin of safety for sport parachutists and all who rely on parachutes as an emergency aircraft egress system -- namely acrobatic pilots, flight test personnel, soaring enthusiasts, and all the other adventurists who strap on a parachute with the confidence that it will save their life.
We've talked about parachuting accidents and changes the FAA has made. But the regulations are just a framework for safe operations. Safety doesn't really come from the FAA or even the NTSB -- it comes from you, the operators of all the "drop zones," the people who set policy and the tone for your companies and employees.
Safety comes from inside. You also have a tremendous investment in your passengers. It is one thing for the FAA to set minimum safety standards, but you have to answer to a higher authority-- your jumpers, who entrust you with their lives.
I would like to encourage you to continue to set standards that come from within your organization. From our experience, I know that rules set by the participants are more readily followed, more applicable, and are vastly more effective than those set by the government. We at the Safety Board are very pleased with your progress in ensuring your future and the safety of your customers.
Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you.