Accidents and Incidents (Knowing Your Reporting Requirements)

Let’s say you are landing on a steep downslope and upon touchdown your tail rotor strikes the ground. No one is injured, but the blades must be replaced. Does this count as a reportable accident or incident?

Prior to March 8, 2010, a close reading of the regulation probably would have led your lawyer to conclude a report was not required. Rotor damage caused by ground contact is specifically excluded from the definitions that apply to aviation accidents. Prior to a Final Rule recently issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, it also would not have fallen under any of the categories of a reportable incident. After March 8th, however, you better call the NTSB. The rules have changed on what qualifies as a reportable incident.

It remains a common misperception, even among experienced pilots, that the Federal Aviation Administration investigates aviation accidents and incidents. In fact, it is the responsibility of the NTSB to investigate both. It is the responsibility of the operator of the aircraft to report both incidents and accidents to the nearest office of the NTSB.

The new rules do not affect what constitutes a reportable accident. As a quick refresher, an aircraft accident is any occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft that results in death or serious injury, or substantial damage to the aircraft, and which occurs between the time any person boards with the intent to fly and the time everyone has disembarked. There are two key terms in this definition (three really, but “death” is self-explanatory).

The first is “serious injury,” which the regulations define as (1) hospitalization for more than 48 hours, beginning within 7 days of the date of the injury; (2) any bone fracture except for fingers, toes or nose; (3) severe hemorrhages, nerve, muscle or tendon damage; (4) damage to internal organs; or (5) second- or third-degree burns.

The second key term is “substantial damage” to the aircraft, which includes anything that “adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component.” 49 C.F.R. § 830.2. This definition specifically excludes: (1) engine failure or damage of only one engine; (2) bent fairings or cowlings; (3) dented skin or small punctures in skin; (4) damage to rotor or propeller caused by ground contact; and (5) damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps, engine accessories, brakes or wingtips. However, even if an irregular occurrence doesn’t qualify as an accident, it still may be reportable as an incident. Our tail rotor example is just such a situation.

As of March 8, 2010, the NTSB is adding several categories of reportable incidents, and altering a couple of others. The pertinent regulation is 49 C.F.R. § 830.5, and it sets out a half dozen types of incidents that require reporting by any aircraft, and another few that relate solely to large multi-engine aircraft (more than 12,500 pounds). Historically, the following have been reportable incidents:

  • Flight control system malfunction or failure;
  • Injury or illness of a flight crewmember that renders him unable to perform normal flight duties;
  • Failure of turbine engine structural components (excluding compressor and turbine blades and vanes);
  • In-flight fire;
  • Aircraft collision in flight; and
  • Damage to property (other than the aircraft) where it will cost more than $25,000.00 to replace or repair (including both labor and materials).

In its Final Rule published January 7, 2010, the NTSB amended one reportable incident, and added five others. The amendment concerns the failure of turbine engine components, and changes the language to require a report in the event of a “[f]ailure of any internal turbine engine component that results in the escape of debris other than out the exhaust path.” As this type of failure is already required to be reported to the FAA under 14 C.F.R. § 121.703 and 135.415, the new definition places an additional burden on Part 121 and Part 135 operators to make a dual report. The NTSB considered this, and decided that the imposition was minimal compared to the agency’s interest in receiving immediate notification. Interestingly, the agency’s position seems to indicate that it does not feel it can rely on the FAA to pass along such a report in a timely manner.

Among the new reportable incidents, some but not all apply to rotorcraft. The most pertinent to rotorcraft involves our initial scenario. Although ground contact previously was not reportable, there is now a new requirement to report all damage to helicopter tail or main rotor blades, including ground damage, that requires major repair or replacement of the blades. Thus, our tail rotor strike on the downslope landing now must be reported to the nearest NTSB office.

Additionally, a report is now required if a pilot experiences a complete loss of information (excluding flickering) from more than half of an aircraft’s cockpit displays such as Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) displays, Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System (EICAS) displays, Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) displays, or other similar displays including primary flight display, primary navigation display or other integrated displays. There is sure to be future discussion about what constitutes “flickering” and how long a flicker must last before it constitutes a complete loss of information.

Two of the new reportable incidents involve averting collisions. It is now a reportable incident if Airborne Collision and Avoidance Systems (ACAS) resolution advisory is issued that requires an aircraft on an IFR flight plan to comply in order to avert a substantial risk of collision, or is issued to an aircraft operating in Class A airspace. It also is now reportable if an air carrier aircraft lands or departs on a taxiway, incorrect runway or other area not designed as a runway, or experiences a runway incursion that requires another aircraft or vehicle to take immediate corrective action to avoid a collision. Finally, a report is now required for the release of all or a portion of a propeller blade not caused by ground contact.

Except among aviation-related publications and online chat rooms, there has not been a lot of fanfare surrounding the new reporting requirements. The new rules regarding reportable incidents, however, present a good opportunity to review what qualifies as an incident or accident, and when a report is required.

Hunter Old represents aviation businesses, pilots and mechanics as a partner with the law firm of Kaufman & Canoles, P.C. in Williamsburg, Virginia. He also is licensed as a commercial helicopter pilot, and flew both UH-1s and CH-47s in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at whold@kaufcan.com or on (757) 259-3870.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 edition of Rotorcraft Professional and was reprinted with permission.

The contents of this publication are intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts and circumstances.


The contents of this publication are intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts and circumstances. Copyright 2017.

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