May 24th, 2017
Last Monday, the Business Aviation Industry mourned the loss of two more cherished pilots who crashed on approach to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. These crew members were operating a positioning flight in a Lear 35 corporate jet from Philadelphia International Airport only 80 nautical miles to the Southwest. The aircraft (N452DA) had already completed at least two other flights into Teterboro the week prior, but conditions were very different on Monday May 15th as reports warned of strong crosswinds and gusts.
The NTSB is still conducting its investigation so we will not know the reason for this crash for at least a month or so when their preliminary report is released. So I will not speculate on the cause of this particular crash, but the fact that this was a short flight has reminded me of how important proper flight planning is for positioning flights.
In my experience, during a long career as an air charter, air ambulance, and cargo pilot, as well as a Part 135 operator, I have acknowledged the continuous dangers present with what we call a “short hop”, “short leg”, or “repo leg”. There are many extremely dangerous factors to consider in this type of flight.
The average positioning flight time is usually 30 minutes or less which indicates the aircraft will not climb to a normal cruising altitude, therefore putting the aircraft into more congested airspace for the entire duration of the flight. Positioning flights usually take place in the morning prior to a much longer flight, so there’s a good chance the pilots can be concentrating more on planning for the longer flight or “live leg” in which passengers are on-board, and the short leg just becomes a means to an end. And, given the degree of mental alertness, it could easily happen that the crew complacently thinks this leg is a “piece of cake” and doesn’t require as much flight planning, especially if the approach is familiar and has been successfully completed in recent days. But, in reality it requires the most flight planning because on short flights everything is happening so much faster, and weather conditions change.
Attention to detail is everything and affects much of what we do in life, but in an airplane, we’re talking about details that can mean life or death. With that in mind, I believe positioning flights are more susceptible to complacency by losing some of that attention to detail, because the short flight just seems automatic. Now weigh in another hypothetical factor: let’s say, for example, the fuel was cheaper at the departure point and the crew put on a full load of fuel, then the landing weight could be close to the maximum. Now all of a sudden you have a recipe for disaster should any more complex or unforeseen variables emerge, such as wind shear.
Who’s flying the short leg is another consideration. Every flight on every plane automatically incorporates some training. But, here again things are happening so fast on these legs, the concentration should be on successfully getting the plane moved safely and making sure the strongest pilot is flying this leg. In terms of scale, if you were to assess the dangers of a 500-mile leg versus a 50-mile leg, the probability of an accident would be off the charts.
Here’s an example: let’s say a crew is has a long flight and the next morning they will have to position the aircraft for another flight. If this positioning leg can be done within crew duty and they will be able to get the continuous rest they need for the next day’s flight, then, in my opinion, they should plan for enough fuel to continue to tomorrow’s departure point while they are still in the flying mode mind set. That way the crew won’t have to rush a positioning leg if there is an unforeseen delay or weather becomes a factor.
In conclusion, I think more flight departments should place added attention to the positioning flights of their aircraft by creating a positioning flight safety program into their training schedule that incorporates, as many as possible, of these normal and unforeseen variables and scenarios.
About the Author
Director of Safety & Jet Management
As Director of Safety & Owner Services, Gus Maestrales helps to lead a company dedicated to air charter excellence and providing aircraft owners with a more positive and cost-effective ownership experience.
With nearly 40 years of senior management experience in business aviation, Gus is an expert in corporate aircraft acquisitions, FAA and DOT regulatory matters, Safety Management Systems (SMS) solutions, cross-border transactions, aircraft management, aircrew planning, and flight operations.
Mr. Maestrales’ aviation career began in 1969 when he earned his commercial pilot’s license and by 1976 founded Commercial Aviation Enterprises, Inc. (CAE), a FAA Authorized FAR Part 135 Air Charter & Air-Ambulance Company based at Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport. CAE was acquired by private investors in 2013, but during his 37 years as Owner and Director of Operations Gus owned, managed, and operated a total of 69 different corporate aircraft while logging over 16,000 hours of worldwide flight experience in fixed-wing aircraft, commercial helicopters, and amphibious airplanes.
At the 2008 National Business Aviation Association annual convention Gus was presented an award from Sabreliner Corporation on behalf of his company (CAE) for safely operating aircraft for over 25 years.
With unmatched experience in his field, Gus also provides technical, operational, and asset-based consulting services to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), private aircraft owners, corporate flight departments, FAR Part 135 Air Carriers, air cargo operators, and air-ambulance operations.
Gus is also United States Marine Corps Sgt. (Ret.), Gold Seal Flight Instructor, and FAA certified Check Airman. He currently holds an ATP rating for both fixed wing aircraft and commercial helicopters.