WASHINGTON — Government planes and helicopters are used every day to help protect public safety, as well as countless other tasks. But who is looking after the safety of the flight crews, government employees, and other passengers on those aircraft? No one, the National Transportation Safety Board said this week.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it does not have the authority to regulate the safety of aircraft operated by other federal agencies or by state and local governments. And those government agencies, with the exception of the military, generally do not have the aviation expertise to do it themselves. That makes these aircraft, some government-owned, others leased, virtual safety “orphans,’’ Chairwoman Deborah Hersman of the safety board said, adding that someone needs to accept this duty.
The issue came to the fore Tuesday when the safety board determined after a two-year investigation that a company providing a helicopter to the US Forest Service for firefighting was responsible for a crash that killed nine people, including seven firefighters, and injured four others in a mountaintop clearing near Weaverville, Calif.
The FAA said it is “working on policy clarification’’ for inspectors who oversee companies that lease aircraft for government and private use. Twenty-three federal agencies operate over 1,600 nonmilitary aircraft. State and local governments operate hundreds more.