PIC the Buck Stops Here

Hirscher Drone

All United States Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots must, become intimately familiar with Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.3(a) which outlines pilot in command authority and ultimate responsibility. Every manned pilot knows it and understands it and because that is the standard that all pilots are held to, so must UAS pilots.

The UAS crash that occurred during the night slalom race in Madonna di Campiglio was the result of an unsafe and unprofessional operation that was avoidable in terms of potential outcome. Time will tell if it was avoidable in terms of cause but we suspect that was also foreseeable and avoidable.

In turn, the International Ski Federation (FIS) reacted swiftly in their decision to ban drones from all future FIS events.  The athlete involved, Marcel Hirscher, happened to be an alpine ski racing superstar however FIS will not stand by idly and allow any of their athletes to be injured, or worse, by an avoidable hazard over which they can exercise control.  It is no different for the non-participating fans and spectators on the side of the venue who had no control over their unknown exposure to potential injury.

The Slalom event in ski racing tends to attract large crowds close to the venue because it’s short, relatively slow and easily viewed by spectators. This event was no different and had thousands of spectators around the track. The UAS flight took place at night directly over the race course between throngs of spectators at one of the most heavily attended and crowded events in the sport. The pilot could have simply declined to fly but instead made a different decision. That pilot’s decision to fly regardless of the exposure is what makes this particular accident important and highlights the cultural differences between manned and some unmanned pilots.

It doesn’t take a Monday morning quarterback to realize that the danger was foreseeable and therefore avoidable. There were few, if any, safe options available to the PIC in the event of UAS failure. The UAS was low, directly over the venue at night with no safe option to land or divert in any direction. When the failure occurred, the UAS fell directly onto the path that the athlete had traveled a fraction of a second earlier providing prima facie evidence that no other plan was in place to avoid that potentially catastrophic outcome. The emergency procedures were apparently comprised of the PIC crossing his or her fingers and hoping for the best. It worked……just barely.

The major problems we are seeing in unmanned aircraft operations today appear to be cultural.  Many UAS pilots do not come from a culture of safety, authority, responsibility and accountability because they have not been required or trained to operate that way. Perhaps the fact that they are not actually inside the vehicle, adds to the problem and the tendency for pilots to push the limit or make high risk decisions. Most of those cultural differences can be resolved through education, training and experience. Unfortunately most regulatory agencies around the world are more focused upon accountability than they are on safety and training in the drafting of new regulations.

Pilot training and experience is imperative and nearly every new regulation ignores that fact. The insurance industry will likely have to take the lead if safety, training and experience are going to become the priority over accountability. That leadership is nothing new to the insurance industry and safety program development is something the insurance industry is particularly good at.  The insurance industry took the lead when a high number of unexplained losses were occurring with the newly designed and manufactured Piper Malibu aircraft. After a long investigation that included NASA’s involvement, it was determined that the losses were occurring because inexperienced and under-trained pilots were flying themselves into conditions that they did not have the training and experience to recognize, avoid or handle appropriately.  The insurance industry imposed training and experience requirements upon pilots who wanted to insure their Piper Malibu aircraft and losses quickly dropped to acceptable (profitable) levels. That’s just one example of how insurance can act to improve safety in an emerging industry or new exposures.

Of course insurance can only provide so much leadership. One thing that must be noted is that there is no insurance requirement in the United States for non-commercial use aircraft, either manned or unmanned, which makes insurance an opt-in or cooperative program. In our Piper Malibu example above, the only aircraft and pilots that were required to adhere to the training and experience requirements where those that opted to buy insurance. Those pilots who opt-in and carry insurance also tend to be the safest pilots from a cultural standpoint and we are seeing a similar trend in unmanned. One benefit of the opt-in nature of the aviation insurance industry is that it provides a means to compare loss frequency and loss severity between the two classes of pilot.

One thing is for certain. The general public will not stand-by or tolerate being damaged, injured or killed by remotely controlled machines and will certainly hold their pilots accountable. Pilots must understand that they alone have the authority and responsibility for the operation of their aircraft and to fly them accordingly. That means making professional decisions that include safety over economics and understanding accountability.

You can find FAR 91.3 at this link: FAR 91.3