Accidents vs. Incidents

How to know the difference and what to do about it

Incidents which occur while the aircraft is operated for the sole purpose of moving it around the ramp, moving it from its hangar to the maintenance hangar, or other ground only operations fall outside of the definition of aircraft accident, regardless of the extent of damage or personal injury. However, be careful here. Incidents which occur during taxi preceding or following a flight may qualify as aircraft accidents. That extra taxi time between the normal ramp space and the maintenance hangar after the passengers have disembarked may still be part of an operation relating to flight if any of the crew members remain on board.

If an incident occurs during an aircraft operation where there was the intention of flight, then the next threshold is whether or not the incident involved death, serious injury, or substantial damage. If any of these circumstances are present, then the situation is an “aircraft accident.” The NTSB defines “substantial damage” as “damage or failure which adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component.”

Fine lines
The regulation also provides a list of specific items which are not considered to be substantial damage, including “engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged, bent fairings or cowling, dented skin, small punctured 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 wingtips.” One of the catches here is the term “wingtips.” Winglets have replaced wingtips on many aircraft, however the jury may still be out on whether or not a winglet is a wingtip, or a part of the wing, for NTSB reporting purposes.

While a maintenance professional may be in a good position to determine whether or not an aircraft has sustained “substantial damage,” determining whether or not there has been a “serious injury” may be more difficult. With the various patient privacy laws in place these days, obtaining information about an injured passenger or crew member could be a daunting task.
The application of these regulations to an incident is extremely fact driven, and in certain instances it can be questionable which, if any, category is applicable. It is also important to note that the NTSB recently released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in which the Board proposes to make several changes to Section 830.5, including a revision to the description of the types of turbine engine failures listed as reportable incidents, and the addition of several new types of reportable incidents, which include failures/flickering of electronic primary displays, Airborne Collision and Avoidance System (ACAS) resolution advisories, damage to helicopter rotor blades, and runway incursions.

In the event of an accident/incident be sure to carefully review the most recent version of Part 830, and when in doubt, seek counsel.

Lori Edwards is an aviation attorney, author, private pilot, and A&P. She is an associate at the law firm Jackson, Wade, & Blanck LLC in Shawnee, KS, and practices solely in aviation law. She advises clients throughout the country and internationally on aircraft acquisitions, operating structures, aircraft tax issues, FAA and DOT regulatory compliance, and FAA enforcement cases.

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