Answers for Pilots

Incident or accident?

May 1, 2000

What you should report to the FAA and what you should not

Louisiana pilot Jeff Adair, AOPA 1397558, had just gotten his Siai-Marchetti aircraft back from its annual inspection. His mechanic had flown it from his Texas shop to Adair's home airport in Shreveport. Adair's first trip after the annual was to Charleston, South Carolina, for an overnight trip. On the return flight — and at night — the Marchetti's engine failed, and Adair was forced to make an emergency landing short of the Rayville, Louisiana, airport runway. His aircraft plowed through a farmer's field and ripped out fences, damaging the aircraft's wing and nose.

Adair ran from the crippled airplane, believing that it might burst into flames. "When it didn't, I went back to the plane to get my stuff and called the local police on my cell phone," he says. "The local police asked me who they needed to call, and I told them I assumed the FAA. I wasn't sure, and I didn't want to involve anyone that I didn't need to."

Adair called the AOPA Pilot Information Center the next day. He spoke with AOPA aviation technical specialist Kitty Pultorak, who assured him that his only requirement was to call the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Based on the description of the accident, it is the NTSB that determines if the FAA should be notified.

Most pilots assume that any time there is an accident, the FAA must be notified. Every pilot is charged with knowing the aircraft accident notification and reporting requirements of NTSB Part 830. It is a set of regulations that pilots seldom use, but which may have to be quickly recalled in a stressful situation.

"If you are a pilot, you need to be familiar with NTSB Part 830," says Mike Brown, AOPA aviation services technical manager. "This is in the hopes that you will never use it, but with the assurance that if it is needed, you have the understanding of the regulation."

The NTSB defines an accident 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." The time frame is important; the rules do not apply to an accident unless it happens while souls are on board. They do not cover an unoccupied, parked, or runaway aircraft, and they do not cover a taxiing airplane unless there is an intention of flight. Also, to come within the regulatory definition, an accident must involve death, serious injury, or substantial damage.

What constitutes substantial damage? It's easier to say what is not considered substantial damage: engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged; bent fairings or cowlings; dented skin; small puncture 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 wing tips. Except for these, substantial damage means any damage or structural failure that affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft.

"Many pilots report an event when they don't have to," says Brown. "Once the FAA is made aware of an event, the agency will investigate. The NTSB determines what is a reportable accident."

In most cases, it is an incident that has occurred, not an accident. The NTSB reports an accident to the FAA in most instances for investigative purposes. The agencies are looking for circumstances that could potentially affect aviation safety. The study of an accident may help pilots and others take precautions against a similar situation. An incident usually is a mistake of omission on the part of a pilot — a gear-up landing, for example. (The FAA will also thoroughly check for any regulations that may have been fractured, such as medical certificates that have expired or missing airworthiness directives.) Reporting of an accident must be immediate.

Since an accident can happen anytime, help is immediately available on AOPA Online. A detailed summary of the NTSB's reporting requirements can be found on the Web site ( A call to the AOPA Pilot Information Center will also give you the information you need if you are involved in an accident or incident. The aviation specialists will help you determine the difference. You can also receive AOPA publications such as An Overview of FAA Enforcement Actions and NASA and the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

As for Jeff Adair, the NTSB is investigating the incident at Rayville. "The only thing that has been injured is my wallet," he says. "I know that I am lucky to have survived an emergency night landing without a scratch."

As an AOPA member, you have access to the best resource anywhere for information and answers for pilots. The AOPA Online Web site ( provides members with access to a wealth of information and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The AOPA toll-free Pilot Information Center gives you direct access to specialists in every area of aviation. The center, 800/USA-AOPA (800/872-2672), is available to members from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker | AOPA Senior Features Editor

AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.