WASHINGTON - Prompted by a Missouri plane crash, federal safety investigators called Tuesday for better government oversight of commercial skydiving operations because of too many recurring safety problems with the aircraft and pilots that fly skydivers to their jumps.
The National Transportation Safety Board reached its conclusion after conducting a special investigation into 32 airplane crashes that involved parachute jumpers since 1980, but were unrelated to the risks of skydiving.
Those accidents, which claimed the lives of 172 people, were caused by inadequate inspection and maintenance, pilot error or insufficient oversight by Federal Aviation Administration inspectors, the board found.
The board launched its special investigation of aircraft safety in the skydiving industry after the July 29, 2006, crash of a skydiving plane in Sullivan - outside of St. Louis - that killed the pilot and five passengers and seriously injured two other passengers. The trip was organized by Sullivan-based Quantum Leap Skydiving Inc.
A separate board report on Tuesday said the probable cause of the Missouri crash was the pilot's failure to maintain air speed after losing power in the right engine of the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter airplane. A contributing factor was the lack of effective seat belt restraints for the passengers, which might have enabled more to survive the crash.
But the report also found such serious maintenance defects with the aircraft itself that the board decided to examine whether those problems were more widespread in the skydiving industry.
The engine, for example, might have failed because it had not been properly overhauled according to the manufacturer's requirements. Investigators also found that the pilot flew the plane with a propeller system that had been defective for more than two months.
While parachutists assume the risks associated with jumping out of airplanes, the board said those risks should not include preventable hazards involved in flying and maintaining the aircraft itself.
"You expect to be gotten to your destination, whether it's jumping out of an airplane or landing at your destination," said board member Steven Chealander. "The biggest safety problem that the jumper faces is getting in that airplane, it seems to me."
Board officials said they are concerned that parachute jump operators who advertise to the public are allowed to fly aircraft under FAA regulations that require little oversight and surveillance, despite carrying millions of skydivers each year.
The board is recommending that the FAA work with the United States Parachute Association, an industry group, to develop guidelines for parachute jump operators to beef up maintenance and inspection programs and improve pilot training on the aircraft used in skydiving.
After the board expressed similar concerns in 1994, the FAA decided to perform more ramp inspections of aircraft used in skydiving operations. But board officials said they were disappointed to learn in several recent cases that FAA inspections often were not taking place.
Board member Deborah Hersman said she wants to make sure this time "we don't get the wool pulled over our eyes again."
"There were a number of accidents in the report that if adequate surveillance would have been performed, those maintenance discrepancies would have been detected," Hersman said.
Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, said the agency "would take a hard look at the recommendations and get back to the board as soon as possible."
In the Missouri crash, the right engine burst into flames shortly after takeoff and the plane crashed moments later in a residential neighborhood. Among those killed were pilot Scott Cowan, 42, a well-known skydiver, and his brother, Jim, who co-owned Quantum Leap Skydiving Center in Sullivan.
One of the skydivers killed was Melissa Berridge, 38, of St. Louis, who was compliance director for Democrat Claire McCaskill's U.S. Senate campaign.