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Down the rabbit hole Down the rabbit hole

This Training Trends started out as another cautionary tale about how Reddit users are quick to judge, and how that can be bad for a flight school’s business.

It quickly turned into a tumble down the Internet rabbit hole as I dug deeper into the claims being made by and about a Florida flight school.

The flight school has a large fleet of aircraft and trains international students and presumably others. In July 2017, a student crashed one of the school’s Cessna 152s in the Florida Everglades. The airplane was missing for four days before it was located. The pilot died in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not published a final report on this accident, but the flight school owner had his own ideas: The pilot, who had a private certificate, was not instrument rated. He violated the school’s written policy on flying alone at night, this flight school owner told the media. The pilot must have succumbed to spatial disorientation, he said. An open-and-shut case of pilot error—if you believe the flight school owner. We won’t know until the NSTB releases a final report, probably a year from now.

Later that same month, a Cessna 172 operated by the same flight school went down near Key Biscayne, Florida. This time a student and flight instructor were on board when the 172’s engine lost power. They made a forced landing onto a road, and both walked away from the crash.

Again, there’s only a preliminary NTSB report on this accident, which notes that there was no fuel in the left tank and 10 gallons of fuel in the right tank. Yet the flight school owner was quick to come up with an explanation for the media: Debris was blocking fuel from getting to the engine. Otherwise, the pilot and flight instructor “followed proper protocol, did exactly what we train for, and walked away with a minor nose scratch,” the flight school owner said.

Accidents can happen at flight schools. In the October 18, 2016, edition of Flight School Business, William Woodbury discussed creating a written plan to keep the post-accident process moving in the right direction. At no point in Woodbury’s article does he suggest criticizing a deceased customer to local media.

The National Transportation Safety Board uses standard guidelines for media relations following a major transportation incident or accident. The NTSB conducts investigations under a party system, and if one of your flight school’s aircraft is involved, you may be designated a party to the investigation. In that circumstance, the NTSB disseminates information to the public about the accident, via regular briefings to the media. All other parties to the investigation are asked to refrain from discussing the accident in public or giving information about it to the media.

“This rule protects everyone,” the NTSB explained. “The NTSB conducts media briefings in which only factual information is released. The NTSB does not speculate or give out unverified information.” When all parties defer to the NTSB to release information, “the team speaks in a coordinated, consistent, and orderly manner,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB doesn’t want to prevent you from assuring your customers, employees, and the public of concern for victims and your own commitment to safety. But again, the board recommends “stay[ing] away from any judgments about the significance of issues, and nothing that is released should suggest that another part (or other entity) may have played a role in causing the accident.” 

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.

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