An Angel Flight Tragedy in Ephratah

A tragic crash happened last Friday, when a Map locate Ephratah, New Yrok.Piper Seneca (twin engine) evidently began to disintegrate in the air, scattering debris and taking three lives in upstate New York. The flight was returning from Boston (Hanscom Field) to Rome, NY.

The 70-yr-old pilot was reportedly a volunteer, providing free medical-related flights, in this case to Frank and Evelyn Amerosa, a couple from Utica, NY. Frank was a 64-yr-old retired trucker, and had been diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago; Evelyn was a 58-yr-old community life leader, who cared for the elderly at a Masonic Care evelynpic.bmp Community. Many there referred to her as a ‘butterfly’ for her cheerful, bubbly energy.

Reading about the crash victims in an online article posted by the Utica Observer Dispatch, I could not help but feel: while all accidents are tragic, this one seems to stand out a bit more.

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As always, NTSB will investigate, though it may be a year or two before they reveal their findings.

This tragic accident has a lot in common with the ongoing concerns about emergency medical service (EMS) flights. A key difference, of course, is that EMS flights typically extract huge fees from crash victims and others, while Angel Flight provides a free service. But, regardless of the amount of money exchanged, even if no money changes hands, we all depend on FAA to regulate aviation safety. It is not acceptable for the airlines to fly passengers using defective equipment; likewise, it is not acceptable for volunteer flight missions in private aircraft to potentially fail to comply with safety standards.

Angel Flight promotes a program in which free flying services are provided by wonderful volunteers. Those services must be fully supported with FAA’s oversight and expertise. The tragedy of this crash will only multiply, if NTSB fails to identify all opportunities for improvement.

What the Investigation Needs to Include:

NTSB needs to do their job, so that FAA can best do its job: helping all aviators, including Angel Flight, to safely fulfill their larger mission. Here is a short list, a few of the questions that NTSB needs to investigate:

  1. What role did weather play in this accident? The radar depicted at Flightaware indicates possible flight hazards, as the flight appeared to crash while entering the eastern edge of a line of painted weather activity.
  2. Are nonprofits such as Angel Flight, who provide volunteer flight services, exempted from any certification requirements, as would be required by a commercial air taxi conducting this same flight? I.e., are requirements identical for equipment, pilot, and any other required certifications?
  3. If the certification requirements are lower for these volunteer flight services, how exactly are the safety requirements reduced, and what stops FAA from correcting this difference?
  4. Given that Angel Flight does solicit and collect public donations, it seems reasonable to expect their program does provide cost of fuel and/or other reimbursements. Does their operation include a certificate, filed with FAA, that clearly declares what costs are reimbursed, what other monies may be disbursed to any or all ‘volunteer pilots’, etc.?
  5. To what extent do the ‘volunteer pilots’ benefit with the accumulation of flight hours needed toward a benchmark, such as eligibility for employment with a major airline? Or, put a bit differently, what selection criteria (minimum hours, certifications, commercial experience, etc.) are used by a nonprofit such as Angel Flight to ensure their pilots are fully dedicated volunteers, not just trying to build hours?
  6. To what extent does FAA become involved in evaluating nonprofit programs? For example, while Angel Flight may be an extremely virtuous nonprofit, what is to stop an unscrupulous operator from setting up a nonprofit that solicits huge amounts of public donations, and allows the operator to take home substantial personal profits, while concealing an unsafe and otherwise shoddy operation?

I want to reiterate that these questions are not intended to question the performance or value of any existing aviation nonprofits (such as Angel Flight NE), or any of the many volunteer pilots. The fact is, Angel Flight NE may be one of the most outstanding programs in aviation today, and it looks at this point that a 70-yr-old pilot lost his life while combining his love for flying with a wonderful capacity to help others. But, there may also be volunteer-driven aviation nonprofits that FAA is failing to support – or worse, failing to regulate – which may be creating unacceptable risks for unsuspecting people. So, let’s all hope that NTSB will be thorough in their Ephratah investigation and help FAA to seize all opportunities to learn from this tragedy.