When I was growing up, my dad was executive VP and partner in a commercial construction company. In the late 1960s, as their business expanded throughout the southeast, they did what many smart organizations do – they purchased a twin-engine airplane and hired a pilot. When I was around 13, Dad took me along on a business trip, where he was able to visit job sites in three cities in one day. We were back home in time for dinner. Inflight, while I was pretending to be the official copilot, Dad sat in the passenger cabin and dictated notes for each job.

Dad always told me how much he loved being able to be so efficient with the company plane, and he always spoke so highly of the pilot. However, that changed on a cloudy morning in 1976 when my parents and another couple were traveling to a convention. While on approach to a foggy runway, the plane descended below the authorized altitude while still in the clouds, careened into trees, and caught fire. Looking at the pictures of the wreckage, even to this day I am amazed and thankful that they were all able to get out with only minor injuries. The aircraft was destroyed completely.

In the days following the crash, it was discovered that the pilot had not completed a recent flight review, as required by the Federal Aviation Regulations. When the aircraft was purchased, the sale was never recorded with the FAA – a violation of FAA requirements. There was no operations manual. There really was no true oversight over the operations and maintenance of the airplane.

Yes, the airplane was shiny and glitzy, the pilot always appeared professional, and he made good landings. He could almost always get passengers to their destination. But, as demonstrated by this crash and many others, those aren’t the best metrics of a safe operation. In fact, after being involved with several accident investigations over the years, and looking back at this one, I’ve wondered: Do many business aviation owners really know what’s behind their hangar door? Do you know?

Although there are no absolute assurances, there are a few questions that might help provide some important information about your operations.

Does Your Aviation Provider Have Written Policies and Procedures?

Charter and fractional operators are required to have these, but it is not an absolute requirement for private owners. In my time at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), I have seen several aviation accidents which fall into one of two categories – the organization either does not have adequate written documentation, or if it does have such, it does not adhere to it rigorously.

How Do You Ensure Compliance?

A few years ago, we investigated the crash of a Gulfstream IV, which claimed seven lives, including the high-net-worth owner of the jet. On the surface, the aviation department had all of the makings of a very professionally run organization. After the crash, we learned that the pilots were not even following basic procedures such as using cockpit checklists and checking flight controls before flight – factors which were directly causal to the crash.

How do you ensure compliance with procedures and regulations? External audits are a good start, but in this crash, the operator had received high marks during its last audit. Yet, our investigation found a completely different story.

Another way is to insist on your operator having a flight data monitoring program, where data from flights are routinely downloaded and analyzed to look for noncompliance. Following a chartered jet crash in 2015 which claimed nine lives, the NTSB stated: “Operational flight data monitoring programs could provide… operators with objective information regarding the manner in which their pilots conduct flights, and a periodic review of such information could assist operators in detecting and correcting unsafe deviations from company standard operating procedures.” Major airlines have been doing this for years, as do several corporate aviation departments. Should your aviation provider be doing this? 

How Does Your Aviation Provider Manage Risks?

It’s unlikely that you would be as successful as you are if you didn’t manage risks. Does your aviation provider have a formal means of managing risks to ensure your safety?

Smart business aviation operators require pilots to complete a flight risk awareness assessment before flight to ensure the planned flight is not predicting an unwarranted level of risks. If the level of risk is higher than acceptable, how can those risks be managed so they are at an acceptable level?

In a former life, I was recruited from an airline career to manage a small flight department for a Fortune 500 company. We routinely flew into a particular airport because it was near the company’s business unit in that town. When I took over the department, I realized there were hazards at that airport which didn’t provide a comfortable safety margin. The instrument approach did not provide the highest safety margins; the runway was relatively short, and there were ditches on either end of the runway; there were no airport rescue and firefighting facilities. We did a risk assessment and then presented that information to the senior leadership of the company. The leaders agreed that they were not willing to accept that level of risk, yet our pilots had always gone there because that’s what they thought the leadership wanted. Based on data, it was mutually agreed upon to use a larger airport which, as it turned out, was just minutes farther than the smaller airport. The point is that risks should not be blindly accepted.

What Is the Safety Culture of  Your Aviation Provider?

Is there a collective commitment by everyone to emphasize safety over competing goals? Are they comfortable telling you no? (Listen to the BAA Podcast “When Your Pilot Says ‘No’”).

Do They Have a Safety Management System?

Although required for airlines, a Safety Management System (SMS) is not required by the FAA for business aviation operators or charter operators. Based on accident investigations, the NTSB has recommended that business aviation operators, including those operated for charter, have a SMS.

SMS is a business approach to managing safety by providing a structured way to do so. Don’t be fooled by the answer of “we have SMS.” SMS isn’t just a manual on the shelf – it is something that must be actively practiced and incorporated into everything they do. Contrary to being something they have, it really should be something they do and live by. An effective SMS incorporates and addresses the questions raised above.

Business aviation is a powerful tool which helps businesses succeed. I’ve seen those benefits with my dad’s company, and I saw that when running a Fortune 500 flight department. I’ve also seen how devastating an aviation accident can be to a business, to those involved, and to those they leave behind. Getting the correct answers to the questions may help ensure you know what’s behind your hangar door. BAA

Robert Sumwalt is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. In addition to his accident investigation and safety background, he knows first-hand the benefits of business aviation.


  1. Outstanding article! Thank you, Chairman Sumwalt.

    One quick test of a company’s safety system is to ask the executive responsible for aviation safety what the top risks are to the operation.

    In a properly functioning SMS, the executive should be able to answer right away and also explain what is being done to address each risk. If safety communication is working well, each employee associated with flight operations should also know the answers. And hopefully, they are all the same answers! The answers will likely change over time. Of course, “none” is always the wrong answer.

    Do YOU know the top 3 risks to YOUR operation?

  2. Right on Mr. Chairman,

    Having a Safety Management System, like not having any accidents, do not of themselves equate to a safe operation.

    Practice makes perfect. And the more perfectly we execute our flight responsibilities, the safer we are. Amazing how that works isn’t it?

  3. Excellent read. This article in part solidifies a school of thought that emphasizes the replacement of human element in the cockpit with automation to eliminate the risk of mishaps that are contributed by the operators’ negligence and improper handling. Great read, indeed!

  4. Thanks for a detailed and thought-provoking article. It was also impressive to learn about your background and long-standing interest in promoting safety and efficiency.

  5. Consider a professional audit with an organization with a GOLD STANDARD! They are available, well spent dollars for safety.


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