The idea that something could happen within our flying club—such as a serious incident or accident—is something we don’t like to think about. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t give them thought. After all, pondering scenarios that represent the worst is necessary to craft an effective plan for how to handle them. So, even while hoping that the worst never happens, how can you make sure your club is prepared?
In the event of a serious incident or accident, how would your club respond? What if an aircraft is long overdue? First, it is a good practice in any club to always have an idea of a member’s intended destination. This way, if an aircraft is overdue, the club can respond effectively in the event that search and rescue efforts need to be launched. Do your clubs operating rules require that pilots provide their intended route of flight when they check out the aircraft? If not, this can be a good rule to incorporate. Most flight schedulers allow for those checking out an aircraft to provide flight details. Information, such as where a flight is expected to terminate and passengers aboard, would provide the club valuable information if a search effort were required.
If a serious incident or accident is confirmed to have occurred, does your club have all the documents that might be required following it? What are the initial steps that would need to be taken? First, it is important to remember how the NTSB distinguishes between a serious incident and an accident, and which events require immediate notification. An accident or serious incident requires immediate notification to the NTSB and may require the submission of NTSB form 6120.1 (required for accidents, only required for serious incidents if requested by NTSB). Serious incidents can include flight control system malfunction or failures, in-flight fires, and the inability of a required flight crewmember to perform normal flight duties as a result of injury or illness; a complete list can be found in 49 CFR 830.5.
Whether an event meets the definition of an accident may be more difficult to distinguish than one would think. In 49 CFR 830.2, an accident is defined as “an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.” Substantial damage means “damage or failure which adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft.”
However, the following are not considered substantial damage: “Engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged, bent fairings or cowling, dented skin, small punctured holes in the skin or fabric, ground damage to rotor or propeller blades, and damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps, engine accessories, brakes, or wingtips.” Thus, a gear-up landing with no injuries and damage limited to scrapes, dented skin, and a propeller strike (without damage to something like the firewall or a wing spar) may not be an accident. An AOPA Pilot Protection Services article explores NTSB reporting requirements in more detail.
If a serious incident or accident takes place, your club will want easy access to aircraft documents. You will want to be able to show—quickly and easily—that required aircraft inspections (e.g. annual, transponder) have been met, and that any airworthiness directives have been complied with. As a pilot, you will also want to be able to provide documentation to show that you are current and have met all applicable experience requirements. For this reason, it’s good to identify club officers responsible for maintaining aircraft logbooks and key pilot records (e.g. medical certificate, flight review).
If an accident or other event makes the news, then the club might face media inquiries. You might also want to designate a certain club member to handle media inquiries should they occur in the wake of a crash, even if the only response the member will provide is “no comment.” Whether dealing with the FAA, the NTSB, or the media, a best practice is to consult with an attorney before going on the record or providing information to authorities.
As an individual pilot, you can gain access to attorneys across the country with aviation expertise by enrolling in AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services. Should anything from an accident to a pilot deviation occur, AOPA will have attorneys you can phone, and enrolling in the program is a great way to ensure that even your most optimistic club members are prepared for the worst.