At about 2 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2013, private jet pilot Richard Trammell woke up in Greenwood, S.C., and drove an hour to Thomson, Ga., to prepare for a short flight to Nashville, where his client, a vascular surgeon, was scheduled to see patients. Trammell tried to sleep in Nashville but, as his mobile phone records would show, the longest break between text or calls was an hour and five minutes. “I’m kinda out of the loop,” Trammell told his co-pilot, Jeremy Hayden, as they prepared to land back in Thomson that night. As they were about to land, a warning light went off, signaling the antilock brakes weren’t working on their twin-engine Beechcraft. Trammell and Hayden continued anyway, touching the ground for seven seconds before trying to lift off again. But Trammell failed to retract wing panels designed to slow the plane to a stop, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Unable to climb, the Beechcraft lumbered forward, hit a power pole, and burst into flames.
The crash killed the surgeon, Steven Roth, and four of his staff. Trammell, who with Hayden was injured, told NTSB investigators he couldn’t remember the landing. The NTSB found Trammell at fault. The pilots dispute the agency’s finding; in ongoing civil suits, they claim the pole was too close to the runway. “Those who depend on pilots to provide safe transportation deserve pilots who are well-rested and otherwise fit for duty,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt wrote in a statement attached to the agency’s final investigative report on the crash. “That did not happen in this case.”
Since 2000 there have been five times more fatal accidents in the U.S. involving private and chartered corporate planes than airliners. Investigators cited pilot error among the causes of 88 percent of those crashes. Accident records show repeated examples of crews skipping safety checks, working long days, and overlooking hazards such as ice on the wings. In April, NTSB investigators reported the pilots working for billionaire Lewis Katz, who was killed last year when his Gulfstream GIV skidded off a runway, rarely did standard preflight safety checks.
In 2001 a chartered jet crashed in Aspen, Colo., killing 18. According to NTSB reports, the passenger who paid for the flight became irate after learning he might miss an airport curfew. That contributed to the pilot’s decision to try landing despite not being able to see the runway, investigators concluded. Private pilots are subject to the whims of the people who pay them in a way pilots for airlines aren’t, says Stuart Matthews, former president of the Flight Safety Foundation, which promotes better practices among corporate and charter operators. “I was constantly hearing stories of corporate pilots who don’t get enough rest or who are always concerned about being pressured to press on,” he says.
The Aspen crash was one of 62 fatal accidents since 2000 involving the most-sophisticated models of corporate-style jets and turboprops operated by professional pilots. That compares with 13 for passenger airlines. Since 2007, there have been 106 fatalities on the smaller planes, compared with 50 on airlines, records show.
The accident rate in corporate-style aviation is elusive, and confusion in the way cases are reported tends to understate the problem. The FAA doesn't collect precise data on usage, and flights with almost identical purposes can be conducted under multiple regulations, making them difficult to track. As a result, Bloomberg had to examine hundreds of investigative reports and news accounts to tally relevant crashes.
Airline crashes have become rare because carriers take steps to protect against pilot mistakes. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t regularly inspect many corporate aircraft operators, and pilots are often left to decide when it’s safe to land or how many hours they work. “If they don’t say yes to every flight, they worry about the owners looking for another flight department,” says Melissa Washburn, a pilot who flies business planes.
Commercial aviation is regulated by multiple tiers of U.S. law, but privately owned aircraft have almost no oversight. “Nobody’s paying attention,” says Kitty Higgins, who served as an NTSB member from 2006 to 2009. The FAA has begun introducing safety data monitoring for private operations like that used by airlines, but NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart says adding new rules won’t make a difference. “A lot of times we’re talking about people who aren’t following the regulations anyway, so I’m not sure that more regulation is the answer,” he says.
Investigators looking into a 2007 fatal crash of a twin-prop plane owned by Nascar found that even though some cockpit electronics had emitted a burning smell on a previous flight, no one had ordered maintenance, which was required under FAA rules, according to the NTSB.
Within 10 minutes of taking off, one of the pilots radioed that there was smoke in the cockpit. As they were trying to make an emergency landing, they hit two homes in Sanford, killing three people on the ground, including two small children, along with the pilots. The NTSB found that actions by Nascar's flight department were to blame. Nascar didn't respond to requests for comment.
The National Business Aviation Association and the International Business Aviation Council say it’s unfair to indict the entire sector based on the behavior of a small number of pilots. “For operators whose flight crews routinely adhere to industry best practices, the likelihood of a fatal accident is greatly diminished,” says Peter Ingleton, a director at the Montreal-based aviation council. Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets, which operates with airline-like safety standards, hasn’t had a fatal accident since 2000.
Then there are companies such as Quest Diagnostics, whose private fleet for delivering medical specimens had two fatal accidents, one in 2003 and and another in 2009. After the second, NTSB investigators documented reports of crews flying overnight after working day shifts, pilots pressured to make low-visibility landings, and workers punished after raising safety concerns. Quest, which declined to comment, has since voluntarily agreed to greater FAA oversight. “This was the way they did things, and they didn’t have a reference to know better,” says Christopher Andreychik, a former Quest pilot. “That’s what bred this cowboy mentality.”
The bottom line: Accident records show fatal crashes on private jets outnumber those on airlines because of safety lapses.