FAA cracks down on loophole

HONOLULU — In light of the recent fatal crashes involving Weight Shift Control aircrafts, Federal Aviation Administration officials met with operators last week on Kaua‘i.

They conducted a press briefing Friday in Honolulu aiming to increase awareness among pilots, but also stressed the severity of violating regulations.

FAA recently spotted a “troubling trend” involving a category of Light Sport Aircraft known as Weight Shift Control aircraft, or WSCs, according to FAA communications manager Ian Gregor of the Western-Pacific region.

“Between April 2010 and May 2011, five WSCs crashed in Hawai‘i,” he said. “In three of those instances, both the pilot and passenger were killed.”

Two WSC aircrafts crashed on Kaua‘i this year — one in February and one in May — killing the pilot and the passenger. Prior to that there was a crash in August 2009 in Hanapepe Valley, when the pilot and the passenger survived but were injured.

Trying to address the situation, FAA met with WSC operators in the spring of 2010 and again in March.

“We discussed concerns with introductory instruction flights taking place in areas in which air tour aircraft operate, and potentially unsafe flying maneuvers,” Gregor said.

FAA regulations prohibit charging people for air tours on WSC aircrafts, but the regulations do allow  qualified operators to charge people for flight instruction.

Gregor said FAA believes some operators in Hawai‘i are offering what amounts to air tours on WSCs.

“It appears some operators are trying to get around the air tour prohibition by offering scenic flights under the guise of ‘introductory flight instruction,’” he said.

FAA has “specific metrics” to determine whether a flight billed as an instruction is in fact sightseeing, Gregor said.

“Conversely, we can tell whether an operator is providing actual flight instruction,” he said. “We do not need new regulations to address this issue. Rather, we need to ensure that all operators follow existing regulations.”

FAA staff was on Kaua‘i Thursday when they conducted a meeting attended by all current WSC operators on Kaua‘i.

Gregor said FAA staff made sure everyone understood the regulations.

“We stressed that the best safety solution is when operators work with the FAA and industry organizations to voluntarily comply with regulations — and to fly safely at all times,” said Gregor, adding that FAA hopes and expects all operators to embrace this approach.

WSC operators pledged that they’re doing so and will continue to do so, he said.

“We have in fact seen significant safety improvements by certain operators in recent years,” Gregor said.

However, the FAA also made it clear they will take action against any operators who violate the regulations.

“We do not want to impede people’s ability to make a living,” said Gregor, explaining that it is quite the opposite. “We want these folks to make lucrative livings as flight instructors. But the purpose of our regulations is to maintain the highest levels of safety, and operators have to understand that.”

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