As the community and the entire sport of racing
continues to mourn the loss of the 10 individuals who
perished in the crash of the Hendrick Motorsports plane
Oct. 24, investigators are trying to determine what
happened, while the public is wondering what can be done
to make sure it doesn't happen again.
I believe the investigation will answer the question
of what happened, and I do not want to jump to
conclusions, but one line from a Nov. 5 article in the
Observer did catch my attention: "The Hendrick plane was
not equipped with a ground proximity warning system,
which would have let the pilots know they were
dangerously close to the mountain ... ."
Without this warning system, the pilots of the
Hendrick plane couldn't know that -- beyond the dense
fog -- a mountain loomed in their path.
This tragedy reveals a disturbing problem with our
nation's small passenger aircraft: Many are still not
equipped with basic warning systems that could avoid
More than five years ago, the Federal Aviation
Administration ordered all new aircraft with six or more
seats to have terrain warning systems by March 29, 2002.
All existing aircraft were to have these warning systems
installed by March 29 of next year.
Unfortunately, many passenger aircraft owners have
not yet installed these critical safety devices, and
still others do not keep them up-to-date. This puts
passengers and innocent bystanders on the ground in
In the United States during the past 12 months, there
have been 12 instances where aircraft flew into an
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people died as a result of these
crashes. Of the aircraft involved, two-thirds were
required to have modern, updated terrain avoidance
systems onboard, but didn't.
One of these incidents was the Hendrick Motorsports
crash. It is too early to know whether one of these
warning systems could have prevented the Hendrick
tragedy, but I suspect it very well could have.
Furthermore, the requirements for warning systems do
not apply to helicopters, which fly lower and are
therefore even more at risk from terrain and obstacles.
Ten crashes involving helicopters flying into terrain
have occurred in 2004, killing 35 people.
Tragically, many of these accidents involve medical
evacuation helicopters that collide with the ground or
with buildings or power lines as they speed to or from a
hospital, trying to save a patient's life. This
combination of speed and the hazardous environment they
operate in has too often been deadly for flight crews,
patients and bystanders.
Modern terrain avoidance systems cost between $20,000
and $60,000 -- a fraction of the cost of multi-million
dollar helicopters or passenger aircraft.
We must do more to enhance the safety of flight
crews, passengers and patients. We must get these
warning systems into more aircraft sooner.
The FAA should insist on full compliance from
passenger aircraft operators before the 2005 deadline.
And it should require helicopters to be equipped with
modern terrain avoidance systems.
Furthermore, a unified common database of all
dangerous terrain and obstacles should be created to
replace the current patchwork. Many current databases
are out-of-date, some are inaccurate, and most are
Technology cannot prevent every accident. But we must
demand a basic level of safety equipment onboard the
thousands of planes and helicopters which fly through
the skies above us every day.
Lives are being lost needlessly. It is irresponsible
to not do everything we can -- and to require the FAA to
do everything it can -- to prevent these tragedies and
to save lives.
Jim Hall was chairman of
the National Transportation Safety Board during
the Clinton administration. He is managing
partner of Hall & Associates in Washington.