NTSB Punts on Keeping Public Safety Pilots Safe. It’s All On You.

The NTSB has issued a final rule defining an Unmanned Aircraft Accident and its responsibilities. It is disappointing and disturbing.

Public safety pilots fly under the most challenging conditions with extraordinary demands and pressures. This creates additional risks and liabilities for flight.

With manufacturers silent on known safety defects of UAS and no government agency watching over to identify deficiencies in the small UAS that we fly, there is no way for a pilot to know the aircraft they are flying is flawed and will crash or behave erratically.

UAS manufacturers have no duty to inform you of known problems and defects.

As part of the feedback period on the proposed final rule, I commented to the NTSB to encourage them to exercise their expertise to help keep public safety pilots safer.

The NTSB included my comment in the final document.

From the Final Rule

A commenter who identified themselves as Public Safety Flight [Me] argued: “There is no mandatory reporting system for UAS pilots operating as commercial pilots under [14] CFR part 107 or in public aircraft operations without NTSB awareness and attention. Without including the reporting of all craft considered aircraft by the FAA, it seems logically impossible to determine the risk trends of problems of any particular UAS flying in the National Airspace System.

The lack of reporting creates a safety hazard, with the least safe aircraft not being on the NTSB radar. This would leave the NTSB at odds with its statement of its intention to be able to ‘respond quickly to UAS events with safety significance.'”

The commenter continued: “The proposed change also appears to miss a technical issue that applies to all organizations operating UAS as public aircraft. Under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), the government organization, operation, or entity must certify the UAS are airworthy, even without an Airworthiness Certificate.

Since these UAS operated under a COA are certified airworthy and flown as airworthy, any UAS operated under a COA should be subject to the exact requirements as if it holds an Airworthiness Certificate.”

NTSB Response. This comment pertains to increasing the scope to capture sUAS that are operated by police and fire departments and other similar governmental first response agencies.

It appears that the commenter requests that the rule include substantial damage events that occur to first response operations, typically conducted under 14 CFR part 107 or as Public Aircraft under the provisions of a COA.

The amended definition is intended to exclude the majority of part 107 events that do not result in injury or fatality. Otherwise, increasing the scope of this rulemaking to capture public safety operators would create complexity, confusion, and an excessive burden on the agency’s resources with little benefit to safety.

I Don’t Know What to Say

The NTSB says studying public safety incidents and accidents will provide little benefit to safety. I’m afraid I have to disagree.

It is easy to be critical of anything. I get that. I’m trying to understand the logic and be fair in my gut reaction.

However, in this situation, it seems the reason the NTSB is unwilling to review and examine UAS safety incidents and accidents is they happen too frequently and would create too much work.

As the NTSB said, studying these issues to identify unsafe aircraft would create “an excessive burden on the agency’s resources with little benefit to safety.”

I’m not certain I can see the logic in their statement since any awareness of chronic flaws in aircraft does increase safety.

For example, if you knew UAS model X was coming out of the sky daily due to a condition many pilots were experiencing, it would inform your decision to fly, given the actual risk.

To me, it appears impossible, without a study of accidents, for public safety pilots and departments to be informed of defects to make critical educated decisions about risk and liability in the make and model aircraft they fly.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch in the UK studies UAS accidents and provides investigation and public awareness.

As the UK AAIB says, “Whenever we perceive that there is a significant safety issue or safety lesson to convey, then we aim to publish a report. We encourage UAS operators to report accidents and serious incidents to us so that other operators and the UAS industry can learn from them.”

The message from the US NTSB is clear: fly at your own risk; we don’t care, don’t have the resources, and there are too many accidents to deal with.

Plaintiff attorneys will have a field day when your department drone crashes and hurts someone. When you are personally sued are your department is sued, don’t be shocked, and don’t be surprised many others had similar UAS issues that you were never informed about.

4 thoughts on “NTSB Punts on Keeping Public Safety Pilots Safe. It’s All On You.”

  1. Your putting the cart before the horse. The first thing required is air worthy requirements for drones then qualification testing then NTSB type of investigations. Right now any drone under 55 lbs is classified as a toy. If there is a trend in product failures that could compromise safety it should be brought to the attention of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    • I’m with you, but I’m not sure the many accidental aviators understand the drone they are flying has never been found safe to fly, and chronic issues render them unsafe in many ways. Yet they are classified as aircraft and used commercially.

      I’d love to hear your opinion on this question. Would they still fly the same if police and fire departments understood they were throwing a toy in the air and risking personal and department liability on that unproven toy?

      Manufacturer marketing and associations paint a different picture.

  2. It’s important for the community to understand that the NTSB only changed the definition of a NTSB reportable UAS “accident” and did NOT change the definition of reportable “incident”. Those criteria remain unchanged, and can be found in 49 USC 830.5(a). True flyaways, for example are still reportable to the NTSB as an incident. All civil and public aircraft operators are still responsible for reporting those to the NTSB by the most expeditious means as soon as possible.These reporting requirements are separate from whatever the FAA requires in the COA or under Part 107.

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