After two high-profile accidents, here are the safety issues that impact turboprop and piston charters and jet cards

Recent private air crashes that killed soccer star Sala and one of Russia’s richest women are highlighting a number of safety issues.

By Doug Gollan, April 1, 2019

Recent private air crashes that killed soccer star Sala and one of Russia’s richest women are highlighting a number of safety issues

A world removed from those Gulfstream G650s and Bombardier Global Express private jets you read about in stories about what type of plane Jennifer Lopez or Elon Musk own are turboprops and piston aircraft. They’re also very popular.

According to Argus TRAQPak, last year single and twin engine turboprops accounted for 26.5% of Part 135 and Part 91 flight hours, 24% more than large cabin jets like those favored by billionaires, sports stars and A-list celebrities.

The contrast in flights was even bigger. The popular single-engine Pilatus PC-12 made 233,376 flights while the twin-engine King Air 200 series recorded 178,068. Compare that to 49,357 for the Gulfstream G550/GV series, the most frequently flown large-cabin jet, or the 104,428 flights for the Embraer Phenom 300, tops in the light jet category.

PIlatus PC-12
Led by Wheels Up, there are now more than a dozen jet card providers that offer turboprop or piston aircraft solutions. “Safety is expensive,” says its COO.

So far this year, propeller driven aircraft have been involved in two high profile and deadly crashes. In January soccer star Emiliano Sala perished when the Piper Malibu he was aboard crashed into the English Channel wile flying from Nantes, France to Cardiff in Wales.

Sunday, Natalia Fileva, ranked as the fourth richest women in Russia by Forbes, died as the six-seat single engine Epic LT she was aboard crashed while making its approach to a business aviation airport near Frankfurt, Germany.

Recently I wrote about the discussion on illegal charters that coming after the Sala crash. While it’s now believed Fileva was a shareholder in Epic, the manufacturer of the plane she was flying, it still raises the question about making sure when you choose turboprop or piston aircraft, you are asking the right questions. Experts say there are different issues and nuances than when chartering private jets.

Saving Time

First of all, it’s important to realize why turboprops and piston planes are popular, and it’s not just price. Even though they are slower than jets, they can access even smaller airports. It means that you can land even closer to your final destination, saving you time. Augusta, Georgia is a high-profile example, however, there are hundreds.

Saving Money

If you are making a short hop, say from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and you have eight people, whereas you would probably need a super-midsize jet, a King Air 350 or PC-12 would do the trick for about half the cost. Both have roomy and modern cabins, hence their popularity.

Since you aren’t using the jet’s greater speed during the climb or approach, and ATC often slows all aircraft in busy corridors, the flight on a turboprop might be 10 minutes longer.

Gold Standard

I reached out to Dave Kaufman, the COO of Wheels Up, which uses Gama Aviation to operate its King Air fleet. Gama is IS-BAO Stage 3, Wyvern Wingman and Argus Platinum, so top level of all the third-party ratings.

Wheels Up King Air 350
Wheels Up has helped lead a surge in non-jet jet cards by focusing on safety of its turboprop fleet.

Wheels Up also requires all its pilots hold an FAA Airline Transport License and an FAA First-Class Medical Certificate, both the highest available. Pilots have an average of 5,000 hours of experiences, are all captain-qualified, and receive full-motion simulator training at FlightSafety twice a year.

Kaufman told me, “Safety is expensive,” but declined to comment on either of the high profile accidents.

Despite his brevity, if you stop reading here, next time you’re comparing prices, it’s something to keep in mind. There are some good reasons that two of the same aircraft types can be offered at significantly different prices, and it’s not necessarily that one company is taking bigger profit margins.

Only One Pilot?

I also asked Colin Milligan, director of safety at Miami-based charter broker Unity Jets what consumers should do to ensure their non-jet private flights are as safe as possible?

Milligan is an FAA Certified Commercial Pilot, flight Instructor, and dispatcher. Prior to joining Unity Jets, he spent eight years at Textron’s CitationAir, which operated a fleet of aircraft for fractional owners.

He says, “Check to see if a piston or turbo-prop aircraft are being flown by two pilots since they may not be required to be operated with two pilots like most jets are.”

Daniel Hirschorn, CEO of jet card and on-demand charter broker Luxury Aircraft Solutions, agreed. He says, “(We) highly recommend two pilots for our client’s piston (and) turboprop trips. The cost increase is reasonable and averages a few hundred dollars per day. With two sets of eyes, there is less room for error,” he says. Pricing for its turboprop jet cards includes two pilots.

Pilot Qualifications

Tom Filippini, CEO of StraightLine Private Air, a jet card membership program focusing on light jets, turboprop and piston aircraft, says, “Because of the ongoing pilot shortage and resulting gravitation of qualified pilots toward twin-engine jets, you want to be certain that the pilots are highly qualified. In some cases, we’ve seen a downgrade in qualifications as you get lower in the food chain of aircraft categories. In other words, the best pilots flying the most sophisticated aircraft. This isn’t a universal theme as there are amply qualified pilots flying pistons and turboprops, it’s just key to know who you’re flying with.”

Hirschhorn notes, “The pilot involved in the Sala incident is said to only have a private pilot’s license and was not certified to fly at night due to color blindness.”

Safety Pilots

You may hear the term “safety pilot.” Executives I’ve talked to say insist on two pilots both rated and qualified for the aircraft. Under Part 135 a safety pilot is only allowed via narrow provisions. “You can buy a pilot’s outfit at Banana Republic. That’s not what you want,” quipped one person I spoke with. “Trying to save pennies on safety is idiotic,” says another.

However, the consensus on one pilot versus two is not unanimous. Andrew Schmertz, CEO of air taxi membership operator Fly Hopscotch says, “I disagree that single pilot operations aren’t as safe as two-pilot operations.”

He adds, “While cabin class, turbine aircraft might have to be operated with two crew members, single pilot operations in technologically-advanced small, aircraft have proven to be just as safe in charter operations.” A Cirrus SR22 operator, he says, “We train extensively on emergency procedures and how to properly use automation.  It is outdated thinking to say customers should always demand two pilots and the historical safety record doesn’t back up the contention that two pilots are better. Customers, and the FAA, however, should demand high training standards.”

Who’s The Charter Operator?

“The Salo crash is disturbing. The first question on any of these flights has to be is the operator licensed to conduct it?  Do they have an air carrier certificate? Everything flows from that,” says Schmertz.

Hirschhorn adds, “Private aircraft charter customers must understand that only FAR Part 135 aircraft should be used, regardless of the size of the airplane.”

You might recall my story last week about BlackBird. The private aviation marketplace is based on Part 91 Dry Leases. You may want to read the article, however, the long and short of it is that Part 135 standards are different and higher than Part 91. Part 91 is about owning or leasing an aircraft and the legal liability and operational oversight that goes along with it. It is not your run-of-the-mill charter. Stay away unless you know what you are doing.

Illegal Charters

Filippini adds, “There tends to be more grey market charters of pistons and turboprops than jets, so it is critical to ensure you’re flying legally and with requisite certifications. At all costs, we advise avoiding grey charter. It’s not only illegal, but dangerous. Recent unfortunate fatalities, in particular the Sala incident, seem to have occurred with uncertified charter.”

He says, “Third-party auditing firms such as Argus and Wyvern don’t focus heavily on light charter aircraft and operators, so ask your charter operator to furnish maintenance summaries, pilot qualification details, and accident (and) incident reports.”

Aircraft History

Fleets Analyzer, according to a report in Flight Global, says the plane Fileva was flying sustained major damage four years ago when it was involved in a landing accident in Moscow.

Filippini advises, “Look at the NTSB database to see if they have any incidents or accidents. Talk to the operator and ask direct questions about incidents or accidents, ask about if any of their pilots or aircraft have had any FAA violations.  Ask about their safety standards. See if they simply comply with FAA regulations, or if they go above and beyond. Ask if they have an internal safety standard operating procedure book.”

Find a broker or jet card provider with high standards

Using a reputable charter broker who knows the operators or joining a jet card program that has published standards and continually reviews and vets the operators it uses is also a good suggestion. Both Wyvern and Argus now publish lists of registered brokers that have met standards they have each established.

Filippini advises, “As a last measure, feel free to call the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) overseeing the region you’re flying to inquire generally about the safety of the operator you’re flying with. You can even call local FBOs to get their take on the operators and aircraft on the field. Don’t single out the one you are curious about. Ask about all of them.”


Among the myriad of factors that contributed to the Sala crash was weather.

Jet card and charter broker ExpertJet’s Andrew Flaxman is an ATP-rated pilot who has flown for both the airlines and as a business jet pilot. He says piston and turboprops use boots instead of heated wings for inflight deicing.

He adds, “In short, this means (props) have to wait for the ice to accumulate before knocking it off versus jets that can prevent accumulation. In the mountains, high altitude, should a plane ice up and be heavy, it could quickly stall-spin the aircraft if the pilot isn’t aware of the buildup.”

Hirschhorn says making sure there is proper deicing is paramount. Ask and insist. He says he insists operators hangar aircraft which minimizes the possibility of icing. Both say when flying turboprops and pistons, be more cognizant of weather.

Don’t be bullied

One benefit of flying privately is you set the schedule. If there is bad weather, confer with your broker or operator about moving your departure.

Recently, I visited the NetJets operations center. While they only fly jets, they also understand that many customers don’t want to fly in less than optimal conditions. They’ll proactively call customers to see about moving flight times to avoid poor weather.

Jets, which can travel higher and faster, are better able to avoid bad weather, so the bottom line is don’t let anybody intimidate you if you want to move your flight times because of bad weather with jets or turboprops.

“If weather conditions do not permit safe operation we will recommend an adjustment to the departure time of the trip or will refund our clients in full,” says Hirschhorn.

Airplane Types

The Epic LT that Fileva was flying when it crashed is by any measures, not a mainstream type. It is reported she was an owner of the company, which would be a reason she was on it. In fact, it’s classified as a Kit Plane.

Milligan notes, “Kit planes are not certified for commercial operations in the United States.  They can only be flown privately without compensation.”  Filippini says avoid niche aircraft. Look for types that have been broadly produced, and are in wide use.

Should You Consider Props?

In the Private Jet Card Comparisons database, more than a dozen companies, over 20% of providers, offer turboprop or piston jet cards.

Greg Raiff, CEO of Private Jet Services, a jet card and charter broker isn’t one of them, and says his company does not charter pistons.

He tells me, “These light aircraft make great recreational vehicles, but we are in the business of providing mission-critical flight logistics. You don’t use a Vespa to haul fine art, and we don’t use piston aircraft to transport our customers.”

He adds, “We rarely use turboprop aircraft due to the slow-and-low nature of the performance profiles, however when operated by professionals in a well-maintained program like Wheels Up, some turboprops provide great utility and cost efficiency on short range flights.”

Fillipini counters, “For trips under 500 miles or to access to runways not accessible to jets, a turboprop or piston aircraft is often the preferable and sometimes the only option.”

He notes, “For these short hops, the speed advantage of a jet is nullified by the fact that the aircraft doesn’t spend much time at cruising altitude. This, combined with the generally lower operating costs of lighter aircraft, results in meaningful cost savings for short trips.”

Final Thoughts

Clearly, when looking at the TRAQPak numbers, there are a lot of Part 135 and Part 91 flights on propeller-driven aircraft. It’s also important to remember that both the Sala and Fileva crashes were not your typical charters that would take place via any reputable broker or operator. However, they do highlight issues that it makes sense to be aware of.

As when you charter jets or shop for a jet card, all operators and pilots are not created equal. If not more, at least as much, it behooves you to take a hard look at who you are doing business with before you sign that contract.

The National Business Aviation Association provides a comprehensive list of questions you (or your broker) should be asking any operator. I would encourage you to read it thoroughly at least once. It will take about five minutes.

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