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Published May 27, 2014, 09:30 AM

Ag aviation taking off

The National Transportation Safety Board on May 14 issued an alert for agriculture-specific guidance on fatigue management, risk management, aircraft maintenance and pilot knowledge and skills tests, and urged the industry to work with regulators for better safety.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

The National Transportation Safety Board on May 14 issued an alert for agriculture-specific guidance on fatigue management, risk management, aircraft maintenance and pilot knowledge and skills tests, and urged the industry to work with regulators for better safety.

The NTSB released findings from a special investigation report on the safety of agricultural aircraft operations. Among other things, the NTSB urges the National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation and the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with new guidance for agricultural aircraft operators.

Agricultural aviators rank sixth or seventh among general aviation sectors in hours flown, but rank third in annual accidents because of low-level flying in the operations area and obstacles.

The NTSB studied 78 accidents in 2013 to understand the issues. The board noted that ag aviators fly low enough to be concerned about obstacles such as power lines, communication towers and meteorological evaluation towers (METs). In the study, the NTSB gathered information on pilot work and sleep schedules, pilot training and experience and aircraft maintenance.

The NTSB investigators noted that “collisions with obstacles” are a prevailing concern. The NTSB issued a safety alert titled “Preventing Obstacle Collision Accidents in Agricultural Aviation.” It urges the aviators to conduct thorough preflight and aerial surveys, use technology to be aware of obstacles and better understand the performance limitations and requirements of their aircrafts.

It highlighted 16 accidents involving aircraft colliding with poles, wires, guy wires, meteorological evaluation towers or trees. “Some collisions involved obstacles that the pilots did not see (even during survey flights, but others involved obstacles that were known to the pilot and/or had characteristics that would make them visibly conspicuous,” the report says. The investigation report cited a lack of ag operations-specific guidance on fatigue and risk management, as well as inadequate aircraft maintenance guidance and pilot knowledge and skills tests.

Cindy Schreiber-Beck executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association, says the NTSB alert offers good advice and is similar to weekly reminders issued from the National Agricultural Aviation Association. She has seen the NTSB guidelines and says it does not appear to offer new requirements for aviators.

She says ag aviators are aware of the hazards and says more of them are arising. She says many are related to the energy industry — wind turbines, power lines, METs that gather information for placing wind towers. The METs towers can pop up in a hurry.

“Hopefully those obstacles are well-lit when they’re in our air space,” Schreiber-Beck says. She says the Federal Aviation Administration does not require lights on obstacles that are 200 feet or less. She says the North Dakota Legislature in 2011 passed rules requiring the METs to have contrasting paint patterns for visibility. It’s helpful for towers with guy wires to include bright orange marker balls for visibility for spray pilots, but those aren’t required.

Unlike airline pilots who carry passengers, ag aviators aren’t specifically regulated on fatigue or time in flight, Schreiber-Beck says. They sometimes have to spray from dawn to dusk, to accommodate crop conditions and requirements, but associations urge members to exercise common sense on getting proper rest.

Recommendations

Among the NTSB’s recommendations:

• Maintain a quick-reference document (paper or electronic) at the operations base that contains field maps, charts, photographs and details of all known obstacles. Frequently review current aeronautical charts for information about obstacles.

• Before leaving ground, take time to become familiar with all available information about the target field and programming navigation equipment.

• Conduct aerial surveys of the target field but don’t rely solely on the aerial survey to identify potential obstacles.

• Conduct regular ground surveys of fields. Some towers can be erected in hours. Obstacles can change since the operator last worked a field.

• When possible, use ground crews. They might be in a better position to see certain obstacles.

• Watch for shadows or irregularities in growth patterns to help identify obstacles.

• Speak with farmers and landowners to raise awareness about obstacle hazards.

• Use GPS and other technology to maintain awareness of obstacle locations.

• Be aware that workload, fatigue, sun glare and distractions in the cockpit can adversely affect your ability to see, avoid or remember obstacles.

• Understand the performance limitations and requirements for your aircraft, particularly when operating with heavier loads and at higher density altitudes.

• The NAAA’s Professional Aerial Applicators’ Support System reminds pilots that, when ferrying an aircraft or transitioning between sites, flying above 500 feet reduces obstacle collision risks.

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