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NTSB Rolls Out Ag Aviation Safety Ideas

DANIEL LOOKER 05/13/2014 @ 7:02pm Business Editor

That National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency that investigates plane crashes and train wrecks, studied an entire industry, agricultural aviation, in 2013. Tuesday the NTSB released its results. They show aerial application of farm inputs remains a dangerous occupation, even with advances in aircraft safety, and it faces new threats, including drones--known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Yet, NTSB found that many of the industry's hazards are low-tech.

"Even with advances in technology, it seems that agricultural aircraft continue to crash in ways that we've seen for decades," NTSB board member Earl Weener said at a meeting in Washington, DC to release highlights of the "Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Agricultural Aircraft Operations."

NTSB found that the key safety issues are fatigue management, risk management, aircraft maintenance and pilot knowledge and skills. During the 2013 season, NTSB recorded 78 accidents, including nine with fatalities.

Pilots often work 12- to 16-hour days during the growing season and some may lack enough training, although trade groups like the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) say that the aerial sprayers have, on average, 25 years of experience.

But, because aerial spraying involves flying only a few feet above the ground at high speeds, "This operational environment does not allow room for error," Weener said.

NTSB is offering recommendations to improve training and preflight planning. But Weener added that industry groups are already working to improve safety as well.

"Our recommendations do not imply that a these organizations are not paying attention to safety," he said.

The study and its advice was generally welcomed by industry groups present at the rollout.

"We welcome this information. It's going to go into our safety programs," said Andrew Moore, executive director of NAAA.

Moore said his group was pleased to see the NTSB recommendation that towers in farm fields, including meteorological evaluation towers (METs) and real time kinematic (RTK) towers be brightly painted, with guy wires also made visible. Over the past decade, 7.2% of aerial application fatalities were caused by collisions with towers and 13% followed collisions with wires, NAAA has reported.

"We appreciate the NTSB echoing that concern," Moore said.

UAVs were discussed only briefly Tuesday, but their potential threat to the safety of pilots is a top priority for NAAA. Moore told NTSB and others Tuesday that his group is urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require UAVs to have strobe lights and other ways of easily identifying them.

The FAA is currently developing rules for the use of UAVs, including a final rule for small UAVs that weigh 55 pounds or less, which is slated for release next November.

The NAAA view of UAV threats can be found here on their website.

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