I knew the Collings Foundation’s Nine-O-Nine B17G crash back in 2019, which happened a few miles away from my home base in Connecticut at Bradley International Airport, would stir up a hornet’s nest of regulatory scrutiny. The day after the crash (that killed seven passengers and crew, and injured five), an FAA inspector told me these kinds of crashes—and the sloppy operation of some in the warbird community—were already on the NTSB and FAA’s radar, and the crash of this Flying Fortress would be the final straw.
“Passengers don’t realize the risks they are taking strapping into these old airplanes, and the NTSB knows it,” this wide-eyed FAA guy told me. The crash was huge news in our local area (and around the country), and it didn’t do much to build confidence in the perceived safety of old flying machines. That night, my neighbor wandered over for a cold one and couldn’t wait to ask why those old airplanes were allowed to fly passengers. Insert eye roll, although I wasn’t exactly an aviation ambassador with stories of rainbows and butterflies. Just a week prior on a bicycle ride, I showed him the cornfield where I put an old Cessna down after its engine tanked. After explaining my well-worn spiel about the accepted risks that tag along with riding in any aircraft, I got to thinking about the maintenance on these old birds, and why the Feds might be interested in a wide-reaching crackdown. Let’s be fair. Lots of vintage aircraft operators work to pretty high standards and they have the funds and the talent on hand to do so, but plenty of others don’t and it’s made the NTSB look closely at eight high-profile fatal wrecks, and cover identifying shortcomings in FAR 119.1(e). I smell a future wide-reaching Part 135 standard.
As a tech, over the years I’ve had my hands in museum warbirds that have broken down while traveling the country for dog-and-pony tours and local-area revenue rides. I’ve witnessed some pretty crude engine (and instrument) swaps done on busy public ramps, with some operators lobbying volunteers to help with the labor to get the old bird back in the air quickly and as cheaply as possible. I can say with certainty that some of these operators don’t want to hear about work done per Part 145 repair station standards, or at least the invoice that reflects the high standard. The FAA guy is right—paying passengers are, for the most part, clueless about what they’re potentially getting themselves into. That’s what I was thinking when strapped into one of the D-Day Squadron’s C47s while covering the big commemorative fly-over event a couple of years ago. Before the crew started the engines, one of the C47’s owners walked into the back cabin and handed each passenger a pen and the magic form to sign. While blunt and unapologetic for releasing him and his LLC from any liability should the old girl auger, an elderly couple with their grandkid sitting a few rows behind me contemplated getting off the aircraft. After some back and forth, they ultimately signed away their option to sue after the aircraft’s owner convincingly assured they were in good hands. “But, this isn’t like flying Delta Air Lines,” he announced to the rest of us with a chuckle. I admit to at least some tension.
The NTSB formally requested the FAA to enhance a handful of safety requirement for some for-revenue passenger-carrying operations that are operated under Part 91. NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt also spoke bluntly when he said the standard for some Part 91 passenger-carrying ops “exposes customers to unnecessary risks.” This includes LHFE (living history flight experience) flights, mock air combat flights, air tours and even parachute jumping ops. Flights under the LHFE exemption program allow operators of former military aircraft to provide flights to the public for compensation on a case-by-case basis if the aircraft is in the experimental exhibition categories, as the majority of them are operated.
This makes me wonder what this added scrutiny could ultimately mean for our plain-vanilla Part 91 ops. That’s tough to say, but none of us want more regulations tagged on to our flying any more than warbird owners and flying museums want to deal with operating under the stringent and expensive Part 135 standards, or new regs that mimic the standard. There’s no way the majority of these operations will be able to afford it. For good reason, many fear that this NTSB crackdown can trickle down to private ops, including volunteer work like patient airlifting. Then there’s the potential for increased litigation in the hands of aggressive law firms. So, what, we’ll eventually have to hand our passengers liability waivers to sign before every flight, while chuckling that flying in the family Bonanza isn’t like flying on Delta? I sure hope not. —Larry Anglisano