NTSB wants airbags installed in all non-commercial aircraft

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 7:34 PM

Were it not for the broken bones, the brief flight of the little Cessna two-seater would have been comical.

The student pilot lost control just as it lifted off from a small California airport in 2008. First the plane's tail smacked back down on the runway, leaving a trail of fiberglass. Then it skittered off to the left, hit a runway sign and became airborne. But another sign loomed and was mowed down, too. The plane made it another 1,000 feet before landing nose-first, digging its right wing into the asphalt before flipping upside down.

Shaken and battered, the pilot was saved by a mushrooming airbag that deployed much like that of a car.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday urged companies building non-commercial planes to make airbags standard. It also recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration order that shoulder harnesses be retrofitted to bring older planes into compliance with requirements for new planes.

"Although airbags have been mandated in automobiles for over a decade, the aviation industry has no such requirement for small aircraft," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, the NTSB chairman.

Putting airbags in small airplanes is not a new notion. About 7,000 of the 224,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States are equipped with them, and they are installed in most new planes.

"The simplest and cheapest improvement to the safety of general aviation aircraft occupants is the mandatory installation of shoulder harnesses," Hersman said.

Tuesday's action came after a study of 37,000 general aviation accidents, which found that airbags protected some crash victims from more serious injuries and that shoulder harnesses cut the risk of death or injury by half.

"Airbags provide an additional measure of protection to pilots and passengers of general aviation aircraft when combined with shoulder harnesses, which the FAA requires in aircraft built after December 1986," the FAA stated in response to the NTSB's action. "The FAA developed standards for airbags in general aviation aircraft and certified the first system in 2004."

Retrofitting an older plane with two front airbags costs about $2,000, according to AmSafe, a company that makes the airbags. Unlike automobiles, most aircraft airbags deploy from the seatbelt.

About 500 people are killed in roughly 1,600 general aviation accidents each year.

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