Seven years ago, a private jet was flying 16,000 feet above Reno, Nevada, when it crashed in midair with a glider plane. Both pilots said they saw each other only one second before the collision. One of the jet's engines was destroyed, and it was forced to land "wheels up" -- that is without its landing gear. The glider was too damaged to keep flying, and the pilot was forced to bail out and make an unscheduled sky dive.
It was a miracle no one died in this incident, and it's a miracle that more people don't die in similar ones. There have been at least 28 collisions or near misses and seven fatalities in crashes involving gliders and planes since 1998, according to federal data. The reason is that gliders are exempt from federal rules requiring planes to carry transponders -- devices that alert pilots to other aircraft in the vicinity.
The original reason for the loophole was that the transponder devices were too heavy for gliders to carry. But new, lighter technology is now available, so this should no longer be an issue. So why hasn't the government closed this loophole?
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in 2008 that the Federal Aviation Administration require gliders to carry anti-midair-collision devices. The main private association of glider enthusiasts, the Soaring Society of America, has endorsed this, as well.
But the FAA has inexplicably resisted making this change. In an April 2011 letter obtained by The Washington Examiner through the Freedom of Information Act, the Federal Aviation Administration flatly rejected the NTSB's recommendation. This was after three years of back and forth between the agencies over the issue.
Former FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said they had made information on how to install the devices in gliders publicly available. "We believe this information ... adequately addresses this recommendation."
The NTSB objected: "We continue to believe a policy statement about the installation of transponders in glider(s) would be beneficial." But the agency essentially gave up, noting that the "FAA considers its actions complete."
The FAA may finally be reconsidering this. A year ago, it held a public meeting on requiring devices in gliders and other aircraft without electrical systems, an FAA official told The Examiner. The agency subsequently solicited public comments on a proposed rule for this, a process that continues. Sometime, maybe this summer, the FAA may actually get around to crafting a regulation. Chances of this happening will rise if the administration, as rumored, picks Deborah Hersman to head up the Transportation Department. Now chairwoman of the NTSB, Hersman spoke in favor of requiring the devices at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
If all this seems like a minor issue, that is the point -- and the problem. The glider exemption was a simple oversight in the first place. Why it should take so many years and so much lobbying for the gears of government to turn, especially after seven people have died? It is a disturbing reminder that when it comes to safety, the government often isn't capable of acting quickly, even when the benefits are obvious and the solution easy to deliver.