The National Transportation Safety Board has released a special investigative report on the safety of agricultural aircraft operations.
National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation (N.A.A.A.R.E.F.) staff presented research during a conference call Tuesday reporting that 78 crop-dusting nationwide accidents last year stemmed from pilot fatigue, unnecessary risk-taking, improper aircraft maintenance and lack of safety guidance from the company.
NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator Jennifer Rodi said pilot fatigue and exhaustion is a serious issue and one of the leading causes of crashes each year.
“During the 2013 season, we documented 5 accidents where fatigue played a role," said Rodi. "While the FAA has guidance available for pilots to mitigate fatigue, guidance on fatigue management specific for ag aviation is lacking.”
Rodi said pilots fly both day and night and it isn’t uncommon for a pilot to log 12 to 16 hours per day.
But Ricky Houston, owner of Houston Ag Flying Services in Owensboro, Ky said he’s been flying for over 40 years and that long hours are an unavoidable necessity as pilots need to work long and fast within a small timeframe to protect crops.
“You need to make your living in a short period of time during the year," said Houston. "You’re gonna be tired but being tired doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not safe. So you’re working in conditions that aren’t necessarily ideal, but I mean that’s just part of this business and has always been that way and will always be that way.”
The report also found that a vast number of the 1,350 aerial ag services in the country are operated by pilots with an average experience of over 25 years. N.A.A.A.R.E.F. Director Andrew Moore says many of the accidents stem from inexperienced pilots and a lack of safety guidance from the parent company.
"There are approximately 1,350 aerial application business throughout the United States, about 2,800 ag pilots," said Moore. "The annual number of agricultural numbers flown annual is roughly 350, the average total flight time for a pilot is 11,666.5 hours so that equates to being in the air for 1/3 years straight. So there's a lot of experience with our ag pilots, 25 years on average."
Houston says accidents are more likely to happen with younger pilots who aren’t given enough training or guidance before being put in the air.
“Well, it’s hard to regulate common sense," said Houston. "Some of these operators with a lot of big airplanes, they have pilots that just don’t have enough experience to be going in the places that they’re going in. But accidents can happen to anybody in this business no matter how long you’ve been doing it or how much time you got, but generally speaking the more time you got, you’ll be safer.”
The report did cite one accident in Ohio County, Kentucky last year where a helicopter crop-dusting pilot collided with a power line and crashed in a field. The pilot walked away uninjured.
The NTSB report will be used in conjunction with the FAA to improve crop-dusting safety guidelines over the next several years.