Why Do So Many Private Planes Crash in Brazil?

Getting on a private flight is never going to be as safe as on a commercial flight, but a few precautions can leave the math on the passenger’s side

King Air that carried the singer Marília Mendonça
November 18, 2021 | 09:40 AM
Reading time: 9 min.

São Paulo, Brazil — On November 5, the plane carrying Marília Mendonça, 26, to a show in Minas Gerais hit a Cemig power line and crashed, killing four people besides the singer. According to Anac (National Civil Aviation Agency), the King Air C90A, with 2 turbo-helix engines belonging to the company PEC Táxi Aéreo and was in a regular situation. The pilot, Geraldo Medeiros, who also died, had 15 years in aviation and was considered experienced.

On September 14, 73-year-old businessman and Cosan group shareholder Celso Silveira de Mello Filho died in a plane crash, along with his wife, three children and the pilot. The aircraft, a King Air 200, belonged to the businessman and was also in a regular situation, according to Anac. The causes of the two disasters are still being investigated by Cenipa (Center for Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents).

Tragedies like those of Marília Mendonça and the Cosan shareholder raise questions about the safety of private flights in Brazil. But although the accident record for private flights, often called “general aviation” by experts, has swung downward in the last ten years, flying in a private plane remains as dangerous as ever, compared to boarding a commercial flight, where accidents are far rarer.

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Technically, general aviation covers everything that is not conventional airline, military, or sport aviation, such as ultralights and hang gliders. Here a distinction should be made: general aviation, this category where the accidents that killed Marília Mendonça and Cosan’s partner fall into, which includes air cabs, private planes (which are not authorized to charge for passenger transport), agricultural aircraft and experimental models.

Contrary to what common sense would have us believe, pilots and passengers escape with their lives most of the time in airplane crashes. Of the 1640 accidents investigated by Cenipa between January 2012 and last week, 385 accidents resulted in deaths (764 victims in all). No one died while boarding a commercial flight in the same period in Brazil.

“In the last 9 years there have been no commercial airline disasters in Brazil and the country has recorded an average of 61 deaths per year. Does this mean that airline flights are the only safe ones and the others are not? Not necessarily, because if you observe that in a year when an accident occurs with a line, the number of victims is almost equivalent to a decade of accidents in air cabs and private planes,” consultant Raul Marinho told Bloomberg Línea.

Marinho is the technical manager of Abag (Brazilian General Aviation Association) and vicepresident of BGAST (Brazilian General Aviation Operational Safety Group), an organization that brings together private operators, Anac (National Civil Aviation Agency) and Cenipa.

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The average of one accident for conventional lines and 20 accidents with air cabs for every 1 million take-offs meets international air safety standards (see more on the graph below).

“The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) itself has more liberal requirements regarding safety requirements for general aviation operation. This is because without this flexibility, general aviation would have no way of existing,” he said.

And he compared: “For example: a large airline would never operate in a restricted airfield like the one in Caratinga, but a general aviation airplane can. Otherwise, of the almost 3 thousand airports that exist in Brazil, only about 200 would be able to receive flights.

How to manage risks before boarding

It is virtually impossible in a country of continental dimensions such as Brazil, which has 15,000 aircraft in operation (second largest fleet in the world, only behind the United States), that passenger transportation by air is restricted to large airlines, which operate only 479 planes.

To begin with, conventional airlines only take off and land at about 130 airports in the country, while private flights can operate from more than 3,000 public and private airfields, a large part of them in states that are agribusiness powerhouses, such as Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and northern states.

Of the more than three thousand airports and airfields in the country, most do not operate by instruments; that is, the pilot depends on having a good view of the runway as he prepares to land.

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It is common in the interior of the country for many of these runways not to have asphalt, to face problems with fences (ANAC has already registered a case of a collision of a plane landing with a motorcyclist who encroached on the runway), and often to have obstacles around, such as mountains and human constructions.

In the case of Marília Mendonça, the preliminary information is that the plane crashed into a Cemig electrical transmission network, a classic obstacle case, according to airport safety rules.

As in the rest of the world, the rules for operational safety in Brazil are based on a simple premise: the less information one has about an aircraft, its maintenance and the pilot’s background, the higher the level of authority demanded of the aircraft owner.

That is, when Gol or Azul sell a ticket for the air-bridge, for example, the level of safety is the highest demanded because these companies carry millions of people a year and the basis of their business is the confidence that all safety factors are being observed with the highest degree of rigor.

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The level of demand for the big companies is not (and could not be) the same as for the farmer who has an aircraft to visit his farms in far-off regions. Ultimately, the owner of the aircraft bought the aircraft, must take care of its maintenance, and has the responsibility to be judicious about the working conditions of his pilot. In other words, his level of knowledge before boarding is incomparably higher than that of a commercial airline passenger.

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Basically, in Brazil, there are three sets of norms issued by the authorities from these two extremes. The Brazilian Civil Aviation Regulation (RBAC) 121 is sets the rules for traditional commercial aviation, such as the higher number of hours for pilot training, a more restricted list for the number of airports certified by Anac where they can operate, and stricter protocols for the safety of aircraft operation and maintenance.

There are differences with RBAC 135, which regulates the air cab sector, such as the number of minimum hours required from pilots. Air cabs are authorized to operate in most of the 2,500 private airfields in Brazil, while RBAC 91 regulates the activity of private planes that cannot carry passengers.

Bradesco, the second largest private bank in the country, took the initiative to voluntarily adhere to stricter safety protocols, similar to those of companies that transport passengers, after a crash with a private jet belonging to the company killed executives Marco Antônio Rossi, president of Bradesco Seguros, Lúcio Flávio Condurú de Oliveira, president of Bradesco Vida e Previdência, as well as the pilot and copilot. The accident occurred in November 2015, on the border of Minas and Goiás.

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Theoretically, the bank’s planes would fall under RBAC 91, but the institution preferred to tighten maintenance routines, pilot hiring, and the use of the operational safety management system. According to Raul Marinho, corporations such as Bradesco, Vale and Votorantim have adopted similar standards to those adopted by passenger transportation companies.

THEORI ZAVASCKI’S DEATH COULD NOT HAVE CAUSED IN AIR TRAFFIC: A practical example of how obedience to regulations can make the difference between life and death is the flight of the King Air, prefix PR-SOM, in January 2017. The summary made by Cenipa is as follows: “During approach to the Paraty airfield (SDTK), in unfavorable weather conditions, the aircraft came to collide with the sea.

“An air cab governed by RBAC 135 would never have taken off from São Paulo to Paraty in those weather conditions because the operational safety management system would not have allowed it. But the flight was made in a private plane, which doesn’t need to follow this management system,” analyzed Marinho, from Abag.

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In other words, if Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki had used an air cab to get there instead of hitching a ride with the owner of the Emiliano Hotel, the owner of the aircraft, it is possible that the accident would never have happened.

“Operational safety management systems are like a vaccine. Can you get Covid-19 after being vaccinated? Yes, you can, but the risk of it happening and you dying is much lower. With these systems it’s the same thing, since they became mandatory, the number of air cab accidents has been dropping in the country”, compared Marinho.

The greatest risk of all: clandestine air taxiing

An airplane accident starts long before the plane takes off: maintenance failures, poor pilot preparation, poor choices of flight conditions.

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“I could say that 95% of the accidents we have here are caused by some kind of human failure, only a minority comes from some problem with the design of the aircraft, for example,” an aeronautics consultant based in Rio de Janeiro told Bloomberg Línea. A former investigator for the former DAC (Department of Civil Aviation) and Cenipa, the consultant asked not to have his name quoted by the report because he works on cases that are still under investigation.

“The biggest problem we have today are the pirate air cabs, which transport passengers illegally, but their maintenance and safety routine is not that of air cabs, but that of private aviation.”

Marinho, from Abag, agrees with the diagnosis of the danger of clandestine air cabs. He cites as a recent example that of the helicopter crash that killed journalist Ricardo Boechat, in February 2019.

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The Cenipa investigation report concluded that maintenance problems of the helicopter were responsible for the crash of the aircraft, on the Bandeirantes highway, between Campinas and São Paulo. The Band TV host was returning to the capital after a lecture.

“The big difference in what happened to Boechat is that the owner of the aircraft, who was doing the air cab without authorization, was with him, which is usually rare,” says Marinho.

He continues: “Someone goes to hire an air cab from São Paulo to Brasilia and a regular company, with everything up to date, says that the price is R$50 thousand. Unfortunately, if a clandestine company offers the same route for R$12,000, some people accept to pay, but they don’t take into account that the risk is much greater because private aviation doesn’t meet the same safety requirements.

The first step before boarding an airplane is to check if that aircraft is regular with Anac and if it has authorization to carry passengers. One way to do this is to use the application Safe Flight, made available by Anac. With it, the passenger can quickly check the status of the aircraft.

Applications such as Flapper, which sell seats on flights, deal exclusively with regular air cabs, which also makes it a safer way to fly than taking a flight in a private plane that does not meet the minimum requirements for maintenance, pilot qualification, or flight safety management.