Monday, 21 January 2013

Update on OK State 2011 Plane Crash

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) released its Factual Report regarding the November 17, 2011 airplane crash that killed Oklahoma State University (“OSU”) Women’s Basketball coach Kurt Budke and his assistant coach, Miranda Serna. I blogged in this space upon receipt of the Preliminary Report from the NTSB last January. Recall that this was the second tragic plane crash to afflict OSU within a decade. In 2001, an airplane chartered for the OSU Men’s Basketball team crashed in Colorado, killing ten, including two players. The NTSB determined that the 2001 crash resulted from inadequate management by the pilot. Thereafter, OSU revised its team travel policy, which the NTSB held up as a model for other sports organizations (see this January 21, 2003 letter from the NTSB to Dr. Myles Brand, former NCAA President). This modified travel policy only applied to student athletes and not to coaches and staff, and as such, did not apply to the flight that killed coaches Budke and Serna in 2011. In other words, Budke, Serna, and other coaches and staff could travel at their own discretion. This discretion was eliminated last November.

On November 30, 2012, the Board of Regents for Oklahoma State University and the A&M Colleges, based on a recommendation from a task force made up of coaches, professors, university officials, and aviation professionals, put into place a new travel policy to apply to all OSU employees and student athletes while conducting university business. Specific to air travel, private aircraft must be inspected and those piloting the aircraft must be approved every six months before travel is cleared by aviation consultants. Due to significant regulation already in place for fractionally-owned aircraft and commercial carriers, the guidelines in place are less severe for said aircraft. The new policy also requires employees to report any violation of the travel policy.

Although last week's Factual Report does not outline a cause, it appears that several of the flight control cables were broken on the Piper Cherokee that crashed in good weather near Perryville, Arkansas on November 17, 2011, with each fracture consistent with overload. Given the Factual Report, it is safe to assume that the worn cables will loom large when the NTSB ultimately issues its probable cause findings. The Factual Report further notes that Paula Branstetter, wife of the operating pilot and also a current pilot, was sitting in the back with Serna. Budke, sitting in the right seat up front, was not a pilot. These facts also serve to underscore the risks associated with a travel policy that allows employees or students to fly aboard private aircraft with private pilots. Air carriers who offer carriage “for hire” operate under more stringent FAA rules and standards with respect to maintenance, record-keeping, and actual flight operations than do private aircraft owners and pilots. A private pilot’s interest in self-preservation is sometimes not enough to induce meticulous maintenance and cautious operations, and is not a substitute for the more rigorous FAA oversight to which carriers “for hire” are subject. OSU’s new policy, therefore, is more than a knee-jerk reaction to two particularly terrible events; it instead represents a thoughtful step in the right direction toward a safer travel program.

While unbelievably tragic for OSU, the hope is that the more developed travel policy that resulted from the 2011 crash will eliminate or mitigate future accidents of this nature, and serve as a model for other schools and athletic departments.

Hat tip to my partner, Mike McGrory, in my Aerospace Group for his thoughts here.

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