Lessons Learned From Execuflight Accident, Says Company President

 - June 5, 2017, 1:14 PM

No matter why the accident happened and how much his company has been criticized by safety experts and consequently in the media as well, Danny Lewkowicz said he is focusing on how Execuflight can improve and prevent anything like the tragedy that took place on Nov. 10, 2015. 

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla. charter operator lost a Hawker 700A, which crashed on the localizer approach to Runway 25 at Akron Fulton International Airport after an unstabilized approach followed by a stall. The copilot was at the controls, and for reasons that still make Execuflight president Lewkowicz wonder what could possibly have led to such a poor example of airmanship, allowed the jet to slow until it stalled and crashed, killing both pilots and all seven passengers. The wrongful-death lawsuits against Execuflight have been settled, covered by the company’s insurance, but some property damage lawsuits remain pending, according to Lewkowicz, and these weren’t covered by Execuflight’s insurance.

Most recently, Execuflight has hired auditors to conduct a safety audit in the hope of gaining recognition at the Argus Platinum level. The company has also implemented a safety management system (SMS). “The regulations didn’t require it,” he said, “but it’s a good idea. We’ve adopted the SMS and we’re using it for risk analysis so we can be flagged when there is a potential problem, and we can monitor it or talk it over with the pilots. We have seen that it does help us to safety manage [the operation].”

Non-precision Approach Training

Execuflight has also changed the way its pilots fly instrument non-precision approaches. These approaches, without vertical guidance, are also known as “dive and drive” approaches where the pilot has to descend, often in multiple steps, to a minimum descent altitude then level off while looking for the runway. There is an industry effort to train pilots to fly a continuous final descent approach, a flightpath that eliminates the need for a step-down descent and puts the airplane in a better position to land after breaking out from clouds and without configuration changes at low altitudes. 

Lewkowicz believes that pilots aren’t getting enough training on flying non-precision approaches. “For every one [non-precision approach] they do in training, they do five or six ILSs,” he said. “How much experience do those pilots have with non-precision approaches? They’re only getting enough training to meet minimums and are not going to be that sharp.” He also thinks that the FAA should give more guidance to operators and training providers, to encourage elimination of dive-and-drive approaches. If the FAA did so, he added, “then the schools would change their training profiles.”

For Execuflight flight operations, he said, “We’ve raised the minimums to be double the published number, and made it where it’s a continuous descent. If [pilots] level off then it’s an immediate go-around. We discourage quoting charters to airports that don’t have a precision approach.” One of the NTSB’s findings addressed that issue: “Despite the guidance in Advisory Circular 120-108, many operators do not train their flight crews how to perform a continuous descent final approach (CDFA) and to use a CDFA whenever possible.”

Conclusions about Personnel

Lewkowicz disagrees with the NTSB’s finding about Execuflight’s “casual attitude towards compliance with standards” and its conclusions about the two pilots of the Hawker. For example, the accident report noted that Execuflight “did not conduct a thorough review of the captain’s background,” which showed that he had been terminated from his previous job because he failed to attend scheduled recurrent training. According to Lewkowicz, the captain was not fired but quit that job and did not want to impose the training cost on his employer if he was not going to continue working there. Both the accident captain and copilot completed their training for Execuflight at CAE and “they both passed without needing any additional training,” he told AIN

The NTSB also highlighted the copilot’s employment issues: “The first officer’s PRIA background check records that Execuflight provided indicated that the first officer was terminated by his previous employer for ‘unsatisfactory work performance.’ The records included a letter from a check airman that detailed training difficulties that the first officer encountered during Boeing 737 ground school and simulator training.” 

Lewkowicz explained, “We were aware of [his] past employment. He was fired from a company where he would have been flying an aircraft he had never before flown in the past (737). At the time, he had issues at home related to a complicated pregnancy. He was recommended to us by another active Execuflight pilot who was working with us and had flown with him many times and said he was a competent Hawker pilot and was highly recommending him. I’m not in agreement with those [NTSB] conclusions,” he said.

Lewkowicz also disagreed with the NTSB’s comments that both pilots, but specifically the copilot, may have been fatigued. The dispute with the NTSB’s comments centers around how the copilot’s time was counted, in particular that the NTSB mistakenly used the aircraft flight log to count the copilot’s flight hours. “Pilot times are derived from pilot logbooks and not aircraft flight logs,” Lewkowicz explained. In any case, the NTSB was unable to determine that the captain was fatigued or whether the copilot’s performance was degraded by fatigue. 

Lewkowicz also faults the air traffic controller for not noticing that the Hawker was 400 feet too high crossing the final approach fix, “making it impossible to complete that approach safely.” He feels that the controller should have seen that on radar and vectored the Hawker for another approach. But a change in controllers minutes before the accident, he explained, “may have contributed in not assisting the crew. In this case, the robust ATC system that is always looking out for pilots didn’t come into view.” The NTSB found, “The air traffic controller’s handling of the flight was not a factor in this accident.”

Accident Chain

In any case, Lewkowicz told AIN, “None of these circumstances makes it where should have terminated in an accident. If the weather was bad or really bad, there are exits for this, and the pilots didn’t exercise the proper exit. That’s the big human factors question. Why did [the captain] not opt to do a go-around, when clearly all the signs were there? I don’t know why. Nobody knows. Ultimately they are responsible, no matter how bad the controller is, the weather, he knew what was going on, and he knew the copilot wasn’t doing a good job, he could have done a go-around.” 

Ultimately, Lewkowicz remains in disagreement with many of the NTSB’s findings in the accident report, but he also wants to make sure that the attention paid to those findings doesn’t detract from the need to focus on the real safety issues. “I felt that if the thrust is placed on those ill comments like [our] inadequate safety culture then the death of all of them would be in vain. Something should come out of fatal accidents like ours that can eventually contribute to aviation. Unfortunately, the real issues have not been touched and possibly similar events may happen again.”