Most would think government aircraft are some of the safest in the country. As it turns out, this is likely not the case. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates airlines, lacks the authority to regulate the safety of aircraft operated by state and local governments or other federal agencies. The NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman, said such aircraft are safety "orphans" with no body responsible for their safety.
The NTSB made its stunning finding after recently completing its investigation of the August 2008 crash of a helicopter ferrying firefighters to a forest fire in California. The company that owned the helicopter, Carson Helicopters, had submitted fraudulent documents regarding the capabilities of its helicopters, to gain contracts with the U.S. Forest Service. This caused the pilot to underestimate the chopper's weight by over 1,400 pounds. After being in the air for under a minute, the helicopter burst into flames and fell from the sky. The crash took the lives of nine people, seven of which were firefighters, and injured four others.
Simple measures such as fitting the helicopter with stronger fuel tanks might have saved lives. Cabin seats that weren't crash resistant and complex seatbelts also played a part in the number of fatalities, the NTSB said.
The mother of Caleb Renno, one of the crash victims, explained her frustration. "Why is there a separate standard for these brave young men out there protecting homes? Why is the safety standard less for them than when you and I get on a commercial airline?"
Carson's own investigation found a faulty fuel mechanism that caused an engine to lose power may have been the cause of the crash. The NTSB found both of the helicopter's engines were functioning. Carson is now surrendering its operating certificate.
Steps Going Forward
The General Services Administration, which makes air fleet management suggestions to federal agencies, confirms the FAA doesn't regulate government aircraft engaged in activities such as firefighting or border patrol. The FAA explained it's "working on policy clarification" for oversight of companies that lease both government and private use aircraft.
The NTSB is concerned that the lack of regulation may cause companies leasing aircraft to the government to engage in "a race to the bottom" where profits are the only focus. Past proposals that Congress should authorize the FAA to oversee government aircraft have been unsuccessful.
In the meantime the lack of oversight makes for a confusing situation where no agency seems to be assuming responsibility. Hopefully it won't take another helicopter or airplane crash before better safety regulations are implemented.