Agriculture aviation is an important part of the aviation sector, ranking sixth or seventh according to hours flown in the general aviation sector. However, due to flying at such a low level, agriculture aviators experience a large number of accidents caused mostly by obstacles, ranking third in the sector according to the annual accident count. This high count of accidents in the agricultural aviation sector prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to urge the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation to introduce new safety guidelines for agricultural aviation operators.
NTSB carried out extensive research to study the agricultural aviation accidents better, studying 78 accidents occurring in 2013 closely. They worked to get information on factors like aircraft maintenance, pilot training and experience, sleeping and working schedules of the pilot, and apparent reasons for the accidents. It was clearly noted by NTSB that agricultural aviators fly at an extremely low levels where they face obstacles like communication towers, power lines and meteorological evaluation towers. Collision with these obstacles was a prevailing concern.
Based on these findings, NTSB released the “Preventing Obstacle Collision Accidents in Agricultural Aviation” safety alert, advising aircraft pilots to conduct aerial and preflight surveys of the area thoroughly, understand the performance standards and limitations of their aircrafts and use technology that can alert them to obstacles beforehand. NTSB further issued an alert for the provision of other aviation guidelines that are agriculture-specific in areas like aircraft maintenance, risk management, fatigue management and the skills and knowledge of the pilots, finding the current guidelines in these areas lacking.
For the guidelines, NTSB issued some recommendations, some of which include:
- Maintaining a paper or electronic based quick reference document that can be used on an operational basis. This paper should include photographs, charts, maps and information in the obstacles.
- Conducting regular ground and aerial field surveys of the area to be targeted for the aviation so that obstacles can be identified.
- Using a separate crew of helpers on the ground so that they can locate obstacles better.
- Looking out for irregularities and shadows in a pattern of growth when flying.
- Speaking with the landowners and farmers in an attempt to increase their awareness towards the hazards posed by obstacles.
- Using technologies like GPS to locate obstacles in different locations so that collisions can be avoided.
- Informing the pilots on how distractions, sun glare, fatigue and workload can affect their ability to see, locate, remember, or avoid obstacles.
- Making the pilots understand the aircraft better, telling them its requirements and limitations so they can avoid taking unnecessary risks when flying.
Considering all the accidents that take place in the agricultural aviation sector, the fact that these safety improvements are being made isn’t really a surprise as they were long due. When used carefully, these guidelines can somewhat ensure that accidents are avoided as much as possible.